The juvenile justice system of America has developed over the past century with notable differences that distinguish it from the adult criminal justice process. Advocates of juvenile justice supported the differences on diminished youthful offender accountability, legal understanding and youths’ greater amenability to treatment. A hundred years ago, Illinois legislature enacted Illinois Juvenile Court Act (1899 111. Laws 132 et seq), which created first separate juvenile court.
Early in 19th century, juveniles were tried along with adults in the criminal courts. Under the common law, children under age 7 were presumed immune from prosecution as they lacked moral responsibility. Children aged between ages 7 and 14 were presumed not to be criminally responsible leaving the prosecutors with the task of proving an individual juvenile was culpable. Above age 14, youths were deemed as responsible for their criminal acts as adults.
The separate justice system for juveniles has developed just over the past 100 years. Under the tradition of English law, children who broke laws in 18th –century in America were treated same as adult criminals. Parents were responsible for controlling their children and youths who committed crimes were treated much the same as adult criminal offenders. The law had no distinction based on age of offender and there was no legal term of delinquent. American judicial procedures in 19th century continued to follow those of England which subjected children to same punishments as adult criminals.
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A number of developments during 19th century paved way for separate system of justice, increase in birthrate and influx of immigrants to America brought new wave of growth to American cities. Early reformers who were members of Society for Prevention of Pauperism expressed dissatisfaction with placing children in adult jails and workhouses. Institutions to instruct delinquent youth in proper discipline and moral behaviorwere called(Bremner et al.,, 1973).
House of Refuge and legal doctrines was one of the response as per the early reformers. Doctrine of parens patriae provided the basis for official intervention in lives of wayward youth. Parents were expected to control and supervise their children but in case they failed, the state was given authority to take over. Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents in New York advocated separation of juvenile and adult offenders which gave rise to the New York House of Refuge established in 1825(Krisberg, 2005, p. 27). Other houses of refuge were established in Boston and Philadelphia followed shortly by reform schools for vagrant and delinquent juveniles.House of Refuge movement evolved into more punitive reformatory approach in the middle of the century. It segregated young offenders from adult criminals, minimized court proceedings and taught sobriety, industry and prudence.
Failure of the house of refuge and early schools brought interest in the welfare of troubled youth abandoned, orphaned or forced to work under intolerable conditions brought the child-saving movement. Following the Civil War period, humanitarian concerns were directed toward troubled children and their treatment. These child savers were a group of reformers that included philanthropists and middle class citizens who expressed concerns about welfare of children.Theywanted state intervention to save at-risk children through shelter care and educational programs. The result was to extend government intervention over youth behaviors which was the responsibility of families and parents.
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In the 19th century following the civil war, development of separate court for juveniles was evident. States such as Massachusetts in 1874 and New York in 1892 passed laws providing for separate trials for juveniles. The first juvenile court was central to the juvenile court philosophy as children who violated laws were not to be treated as criminals. Under this philosophy, youthful offenders were designated as delinquent rather than as criminals(Bazemore et al., 1996).
History and development of juvenile court and separate system of justice for juveniles presented a picture of benevolent, caring system which has promoted best interests of the child. Youth and children were separated from adults in legal process that combined civil and criminal law. Juvenile court dispositions consisted of a year or less of probation supervision or short-term treatment in reform schools or houses of refuge. The juvenile court process was promoted as humanitarian, progressive and improvement on the older practice that failed to differentiate offenders by age.
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Issues do challenge society’s ideas about the natures of justice and human development as much as serious juvenile crime. People neither expect children to be criminals nor crimes to be committed by them. Such unforeseen intersection between childhood and criminality creates a dilemma difficult to resolve. A way out of this dilemma is either redefine the offense as less serious than a crime or redefine offender as someone not really a child. American society has for the past 100 years redefined juvenile offenses by treating most of them as delinquent acts to be adjudicated within separate juvenile justice system theoretically designed to recognize special needs and immature status of youths and emphasize rehabilitation over punishment(Dighton, 1999).
Beliefs such as youths have different competencies than adults and have different potential for change than adults have prevailed. States have recognized that conduct alone (alleged criminal act) should not by itself determine whether to invoke the heavy hand of adult criminal justice system. A dramatic shift in the way juvenile crime is viewed by general public and policy makers has been experienced in the recent years. Society is opting to redefine youths as adults and transfer them to adult court and criminal justice system.
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It is reasonable that small number of young offenders should be taken to adult system as they do pose genuine threat to the safety of other juveniles. When this happen in large magnitude, it represent a fundamental challenge to the premise that juvenile court was founded on. Under the developmental psychology, the distinctions drawn between people of different ages under the law are not sensible in the light of what is known about age differences in various aspects of emotional, intellectual and social functioning.
The psychology is concerned with the scientific study of changes in the various aspects over the life cycle. Study of normative development is an area of interest here as it indicates whether there are scientific reasons to warrant the differential treatment of youths and adults within legal system. It is clear that juveniles should not be sanctioned differently than adults because firstly, the age range is an inherently transitional time. Rapid and dramatic changes in individuals’ capabilities is experienced. At this period, it is possible to draw a line between incompetent and competent individuals. Secondly, adolescence is a potential malleability period where experiences in various settings have a chance to influence course of development.
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The likelihood of malleability gives the transfer of juveniles into criminal justice systeminsensible. Finally, this stage of youth is a formative period during which developmental trajectories become firmly established and increasingly difficult to alter. Such experiences have tremendous cumulative impact. Harmful consequences hard to undo are possible incase of bad decisions or poorly formulated policies in reference to juvenile offenders.
Transferring juveniles to criminal courts alters the legal process by which a minor is tried, legal standards applied in juvenile and adult courts are different and also choice of trying a young offender in juvenile vs. adult court determines possible outcomes of adjudication(Currie, 1998).Decision makers within criminal justice systems and the juvenile bring different presumptions to the table. Juvenile court operates under presumption that offenders are immature in three senses of the world which are that their judgment is less than mature, their development is incomplete and their character is still in the development mode. Adult court on the other hand presumes defendants are mature, responsible and competent.
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With support from the developmental research, concerns about the transfer of individuals of 12 years and under to adult court are raised. Such youths have limited adjudicative competence and very possible that most of them will not prove to be blameworthy to warrant exposure to the harsh consequences of a criminal court adjudication. Therefore, It is not worthwhile sanctioning a youth similarly as an adult.
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