Juvenile Justice Part 1 – The History
In the 1800s the United States treated children who broke the criminal law as adults. Many of these children were European immigrants living in poverty with no social safety net and being forced to fend for themselves on the streets. The movie ‘Gangs of New York’ paints a great picture of those times. Large numbers of children were put in jail with adults and it became clear that when the kids were released they had become better criminals from skills learned from older inmates.
In 1899, Cook County Illinois created the first juvenile justice system and in the next 25 years every state joined them by creating their own juvenile justice system. Generally, those under the age of 18 were not responsible for criminal behavior in the same way as adults. If incarcerated, they were held with other youth and separated from adults until around age 21. It was believed that kids were different and could be saved. With proper treatment they would change and be rehabilitated into responsible people.
The purpose of juvenile court is to give the kids more protection, be more benevolent toward young offenders, to protect them from the consequences of criminal behavior, keep proceedings confidential and private, and keep the public out and unaware of what was going on. They did this by sealing juvenile records preventing the fact of juvenile offending being used to increase sentences should they find themselves in the adult criminal justice system, or prohibit participation in employment or educational opportunities going forward.
In the 1960s the courts confronted the reality that some of the institutions that children were being sent to were not providing adequate rehabilitation. And, kids were being sent away for years for very minor crimes that an adult would have suffered a low level fine and perhaps 30 days in a county facility. To address this, the juvenile courts changed to ensure kids had due process, that they had rights to counsel, that they couldn’t self-incriminate, that they could cross examine witnesses, and there were other traditional criminal safeguards that we associate in adult criminal justice proceedings required to be made available to children.
Things changed very little until the late 1980s and early 1990s when crack cocaine hit the streets and violence surged in many cities. Many young people were associated with this violence and the country’s approach to juvenile justice changed as many felt these youngsters could not be rehabilitated and were beyond redemption. Even Hillary Clinton mentioned the young criminals had no conscious and no empathy and along with her President husband they launched a tough on crime concerted effort against youth gangs everywhere.
The response from states began in the late 1990s as they amended their existing juvenile statutes to make it easier to try children as adults and sentence them to adult prisons giving some kids life sentences without parole and even death penalties.
Already, in most states when a child was charged with murder of any age they could always be prosecuted in the adult criminal justice. In the 90s, in Pennsylvania, we opened it up to children charged with several other violent felonies such as rape or aggravated assault or robbery to also be charged in the adult criminal justice system and subject to all the adult sanctions and punishments that were available. A lot of kids entered adult prisons far before they could have been prepared.
Legislators gave themselves the ability to carve out whole categories of offenses to charge children in the adult criminal system. For example, a child at least 15 years old charged with a specific designated felony would automatically be tried as an adult with no opportunity for review or consideration. Some states gave prosecutors unfettered and unreviewable discretion to decide which juveniles they want to charge as adults and which juveniles would be charged as juveniles as is done in Delaware County, PA. That practice led to an enormous spike of children charged, prosecuted, and sentenced as adults around the country.
There was virtually no distinction in where kids would serve those sentences. Some places have a youth offender facility where a child might be able to serve out some portion of their sentence in a juvenile facility up until 18 or
21. For the most part those kids were serving sentences in adult prisons.
States started implementing mandatory minimums. Whatever they did for adult sanctions, all of those options became available to children being tried and convicted as adults. Pennsylvania could and did imposed the death penalty on juveniles in homicide cases. Juveniles all around the country were exposed to receiving the death penalty when they were under the age of 18.
PA houses more juvenile offenders serving life without parole sentences than any other state in the country, that means in any other place in the world, with over 500.
Read what the United States Supreme Court rulings in 1988, 2005, 2010, 2012 and 2016 has done to change some of the juvenile justice legislation in Juvenile Justice Part 3 – Supreme Court Rulings on page 12.
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