Jennifer Truran Rothwell
Evolution of the Juvenile Justice System
The juvenile justice system took shape during the the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was heavily influenced by the ideas of Progressive Era reformers. Some of the major concepts they advanced were: (1) ending the involuntary placement of needy children in institutions; (2) raising the age for juvenile offenders to be treated as adults, (3) separating juvenile from adult offenders in order to prevent the further "schooling" of children in crime; and (4) stressing rehabilitation over punishment in the administration of juvenile justice. In fact, some Progressives saw child offenders as needing not so much rehabilitation as completion of the process of formation into adults.1
Some important developments in juvenile justice during this era were:
Research the historical development of the juvenile justice system during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. You might look especially for developments in:
1.the treatment of needy youth and/or status offenders (juveniles charged with acts that are not criminal for adults, such as truancy or running away)
2.the age at which youth should be treated as adults for criminal acts
3.segregating juvenile from adult offenders in places of incarceration
4.rehabilitation versus punishment as the judicial response to juvenile delinquency
5.alternatives to juvenile incarceration, such as probation and community-based programs for rehabilitation.
The Literature of Crime and Poverty
The connection between crime and poverty was once so much assumed that "criminal behavior and poverty were seen as synonymous in terms of the threat they posed."4 This accounted for such practices as: (a) harsh-and even capital-punishment for trivial crimes, including those committed by children; (b) debtor prisons and workhouses; (c) forced emigration of prison populations; and (d) the involuntary placement of noncriminal juveniles in public or charitable institutions. Two 19th century writers who stressed the connection between crime and poverty were English novelist Charles Dickens (e.g., Oliver Twist, David Copperfield) and American Progressive Jacob Riis (e.g., The Autobiography of Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives).
The first activity below involves historical and literary research, and might be performed individually or by teams addressing different aspects of the question. The second is based on using the table, "Risk Factors for Adolescents" (page 261 of this issue) as a classroom handout. The third suggests how students might extend this discussion in terms of their own reading and experience.
1.Choose either Charles Dickens or Jacob Riis for a research project examining the author's:
nworks (fiction or nonfiction) relating to juvenile crime and punishment
nideas about the connections between crime and poverty
nevidence for the validity of these ideas
nproposals to cure these societal problems
nimpact on the public and/or government policies
2.Examine the handout on "Risk Factors for Adolescents" developed by university professor David Hawkins on the basis of his research on violent juvenile crime. This chart reflects a public health approach to violence that emphasizes ways to prevent it. How do the risk factors in this chart compare or contrast with the causes of juvenile crime described by Dickens and Riis? Which of the risk factors do you consider most significant? Why?
3.Discuss any contemporary books (fiction or nonfiction) you have had that deal with issues of youth crime or violence. What explanations do the authors present for juvenile crime? How do their ideas compare with the ideas of the 19th century writers? With the "Risk Factors for Adolescents"?
Youth Crime and Public Policy
Rehabilitation has been the model for treating juvenile crime during most of the 20th century, and it has sometimes even influenced adult corrections.5 But rehabilitation and prevention coexist with other traditional goals of the justice system-namely, punishment, incapacitation, and deterrence.
A number of bills dealing with juvenile justice are now pending in Congress. Their net thrust is to lower the age for juvenile offenders to be treated as adults by attaching the form of punishment to the crime committed rather than to the age of the offender. They include:
1.Research the bills pending in Congress on the juvenile justice system. Which aspects of these bills seem to exemplify the following approaches to justice:
2.Children in our society assume adult rights and responsibilities at different ages. The voting age is specified by Constitutional amendment, while most other ages for assuming rights or responsibilities are set by the states. At what age do you think youthful
offenders should be treated as adults by the justice system? Explain your answer.
3.What is your concept of justice for juvenile offenders? Why do you think your ideas would be effective in reducing crime? What evidence can you find to support your ideas?
1. Carol S. Stevenson, Carol S. Larson, Lucy S. Carter, Deanna S. Gomby, Donna L. Terman, and Richard E. Behrman, "The Juvenile Court: Analysis and Recommendations," The Future of Children, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Winter 1996): 5-6. (Available at the Center of the Future of Children website)
2. Sanford J. Fox, "The Early History of the Court," The Future of Children, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Winter 1996): 33.
3. Ibid., 34.
4. Ibid., 29.
5. John W. Roberts, Reform and Retribution: An Illustrated History of American Prisons (Lanham, MD: American Correctional Association, 1997).
Some recommended groups/websites for obtaining more information on the juvenile justice system and the bills pending in Congress are:
American Bar Association
Juvenile Justice Center
American Civil Liberties Union
Center of the Future of Children
Constitutional Rights Foundation
U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention
Jennifer Truran Rothwell is Associate Editor of Social Education.