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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Brief History Of Juvenile Laws

A Brief History of Juvenile Court
Juvenile Courts were conceived at the turn of the century to end the long-standing practice of trying (and imprisoning) children side by side with adult criminals. There were two reasons for this. There was the commonsense legal theory that children ought not bear the same statutory responsibility as grown-ups because of their immaturity (psychological, emotional and developmental). And there was growing public sentiment that punishing children in the same way as adult criminals was immoral, an opinion fueled by media coverage of harsh and inhumane treatment of children in state penitentiaries — and occasionally on death row.

The original juvenile courts were informal civil tribunals. The accused were no longer called criminals or defendants facing trial and sentence — they were “delinquents” facing “adjudication” and “disposition,” giving rise to an entire system of euphemism that persists to this day. This supposed removal of stigmatizing labels (along with closing hearings to the public) was intended to protect children. But it also permitted the removal of any meaningful scrutiny of the works of the juvenile court, along with most of the constitutional and legal protections commonly enjoyed in adult criminal court. In the new system, children were not entitled to legal representation, nor were prosecutors on hand to represent the interests of the state and public safety. Usually, a juvenile court judge (many of whom had little or no legal training) would confer with the equivalent of a social worker, then decide how best to deal with a wayward child. In most jurisdictions, there were no transcripts, no formal presentations of evidence, no cross-examination of witnesses, and no right of appeal. The intent of all this was to remove procedural and legal obstacles, so that the court could quickly move in to protect a child in danger. The result juvenile justice system, however — as the U.S. Supreme Court noted in a landmark 1967 opinion, In Re Gault — was often little more than a kangaroo court with unlimited power over children and families. The lack of scrutiny left the system open to horrendous abuses and whims. Gerry Gault, for instance, was sentenced to up to seven years in a youth prison for a prank phone call. So the high court scrapped the informal nature of juvenile justice, one in a series of rulings that ultimately conferred all the same legal rights on juveniles as adults possess (except for the right to a trial by a jury of one’s peers, for obvious reasons).

Once again, a laudable intent — protecting childrens’ rights — did not produce the desired result. Today’s juvenile courts focus most of their energy on legal ritual — proving or disproving charges, litigating the constitutionality of searches and confessions, maintaining the papery machinery of justice with its appetite for subpoenas, warrants, motions and writs. In other words, the unanticipated result of the Supreme Court’s Gault decision was to shift the focus of Juvenile Court from the child to the facts of the crime the child committed. Only after the legal issues are dealt with, after many weeks, months, or sometimes years pass, does the court belatedly turn its attention toward what should be done to help a child — far too late in many cases. The child’s rights are protected, but the child is not. And given the fact that most accused juveniles remain free while their cases slowly pass through the system, society is not protected, either.

The problems inherent in this shift in focus are now coming to a head as youth violence has reached crisis proportions. In recent years, with juveniles increasingly responsible for major and violent crimes, public sentiment in support of a separate justice system for children has been waning, replaced by frustration at the system’s inability to quickly and resolutely deal with out-of-control delinquents. This frustration has led many jurisdictions to shift more resources into monitoring and incarcerating the most serious juvenile offenders for longer periods of time. This has had a paradoxical effect: Fewer resources are left to deal with minor, younger offenders — those youths most amenable to rehabilitation, and the ones juvenile court was originally designed to help. Instead, these kids on the cusp are largely ignored — until they commit more serious offenses. Only then, when they are hardened offenders unlikely to reform, do we throw time and money at them — too late for them, too late for their crime victims.

This self-defeating trend is now being carried to its logical extreme — the wholesale dismantling of major portions of the juvenile court system, as state after state has passed laws allowing many juveniles to be tried and sentenced as adults. Championed as a reform, this practice is actually a throwback to the Nineteenth Century, when a criminal was a criminal, no matter his or her age.

In 1980, every state kept its youth criminals in juvenile court.

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