II. Overview of Juvenile Courts
The juvenile court is a division of the main state court of the county court. Most juvenile courts handle the cases of youths who are under the age of eighteen. But some serious cases involving young children may be transferred to an adult court for trial. Juveniles charged with delinquency may be held in temporary confinement until their cases are heard in court. Juvenile courts usually cannot issue sentences that would confine youths over the age of twenty-one.
Before juvenile courts were established, judges tried children the same way that adults were tried, and many were sentenced to prison.
Juvenile courts were established as a result of changing attitudes toward child offenders during the late 1800’s. Changes sought to make juvenile courts a place to help, not punish children. Children really should not experience the harsh atmosphere and treatment found in adult courts and prisons. Court appointed officials, such as social workers, would advise the judges with background information. The judge could then speak freely with the child, usually in private, and then render a decision based upon the child’s best interests. The decision could vary from a warning, to a fine, to probation, or confinement in a school, or reformatory.
Massachusetts became the first state to provide separate court sessions for children in 1872. The states of Colorado and Illinois followed suit in 1899. By 1925, all states save two had juvenile courts.
The Supreme Court of the United States issued a landmark decision in 1967 regarding juvenile courts. It ruled that private and informal procedures used by the juvenile courts had deprived many children of certain rights that were guaranteed by the constitution. It also ruled that children must be granted these rights, including the right of children and their parents to have adequate notice of the specific charge, the right to an attorney in any case which might result in confinement, the right to question witnesses, and the right to remain silent.
Also in 1967, a special presidential commission reported that juvenile courts had so far failed in their efforts to decrease juvenile delinquency. Since then the courts have adopted an approach more similar to that used in the adult criminal courts. However, the emphasis is strongly placed on rehabilitation rather than confinement as in the adult correctional system.
A youngster can be labeled a delinquent for breaking any number of laws, ranging from larceny to running away from home. According to law, a juvenile delinquent is a youth, male or female who has been tried by a judge and found guilty of committing an act that violates a federal state, or local statute. They may have been arrested by the police, or brought to court by the school or parents.
Different people use the term “juvenile delinquent” to mean different things. The legal term juvenile delinquent was established so that young lawbreakers could avoid the stigma of being classified in legal records as criminals. Juvenile delinquency laws were designed to provide treatment rather than punishment for juvenile offenders. However the term juvenile delinquency has come to imply disgrace. An action for which a youth may be declared a delinquent in one community may not be against the law in another. In some communities the police ignore many youngsters who are accused of minor delinquencies or refer them directly to their parents. In other communities the police may refer such youths to a juvenile court where they may officially be declared delinquents.
The arrest of a juvenile is usually carried out by the local police. In this connection, however, the administrative or legislative provisions are often quite specific that the processing of juvenile cases should be undertaken with a minimum of delay. Restraints, such as handcuffs, should be used sparingly on juveniles except in instances where consideration of public safety justifies such procedures. The arrests reported to parents or guardians as well as the local probation officer as soon an possible. In matters of retaining a juvenile under detention after the arrest and prior to disposition of the case by a court, the tendency is toward providing specialized detention facilities. The purpose for this is to segregate the juvenile from adult offenders, thus minimizing the risks of harm and contamination, and providing an opportunity to study the social background and psychological attributes of the individual.
Some juveniles are sent to adult detention centers because of the seriousness of the crime committed and because the arresting authorities believe that the juveniles are unruly, dangerous and/or a menace to society. Often because special detention facilities make provisions for the observation of the juveniles through social, psychological and psychiatric services, the evaluations and their results are made available to the court so that a decision can be made in the best interest of the juvenile and society. The individualized justice which juvenile courts are supposed to offer cannot be obtained without adequate and appropriate resources to achieve this end. These services are a necessity and are usually required from the time that an offense has been committed to the time when the individual is returned to society. One of the most frequent treatments applied by the juvenile court is probation. The juvenile is placed under the supervision of a probation officer whose duties are to befriend and assist with the rehabilitation. Probation tends to be mostly social case work, since the probation officer’s task is to counsel the offender, and assist as much as possible in all areas of daily life. Other problems such as employment, domestic matters, etc., may also be addressed depending upon the facts, circumstances and age of the juvenile.
Today juvenile courts deal extensively with delinquency due to the rise in juvenile crimes. Although statistics are often incomplete and misleading, they do at least give an indication to the extent of the problem. The Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that during the mid 1980’s about two-fifths of all arrests for burglary and arson were people under the age of eighteen. Juveniles also accounted for one-third of all arrests for larceny. In any given year about four percent of all children between the ages of ten and eighteen appeared in juvenile court. Today about one out of every five youths appearing in juvenile court is a girl. Experts today have concluded that youthful misbehavior is much more common than is indicated by arrest records and juvenile court statistics.
In spite of all that has been done juvenile crime is on the rise and many reasons have been given as to why. There is no single reason. Most of the reasons are focused on family relationships, neighborhood or community conditions and financial status. Regardless of the nature of the delinquents’ unhappiness, delinquency appeared to be the solution. Gangs also serve as accomplices in committing offenses and related retaliations inciting this problem in society today.
Many efforts have been made to develop programs of delinquency prevention, but they have met with little success. Some programs provide counseling services to youths who appear to be on the verge of becoming delinquents. Other programs draw youngsters into clubs and recreational centers in an effort to keep them away from situations in which delinquency is likely to occur. Many efforts have centered on improving the educational and working skills of youngsters. For youngsters who are already delinquents, there are programs designed to prevent them from committing future delinquent acts. The more progressive institutions for juveniles provide treatment programs, such as work study, counseling, education, and group therapy. Unfortunately, many other institutions provide little more than protective custody for juvenile delinquents.