The Legal Status Of Children Criminology Essay

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The economic developments of the 19th century brought the legal status of children to the public's eye. The first years of the 1800s were characterized by expansionary fiscal policy. The country was booming and the government was spending freely in infrastructure improvements and real estate speculation increased banking activity. By 1818, Americans began to lose confidence in the banks, forcing the government to begin to contract the economy. This economic slowdown intensified and in 1819, the United States plunged into its first true economic crisis, Great Panic of 1819 (Rothbard). This crisis forced most children factory workers out of their jobs and into a state of unsupervised inactivity. Concern about these children began the transformation of social safety net institutions to institutions designed to help these children. In 1824, in New York City, the Society for Prevention of Pauperism became the Society for Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents. This Society opened the first "House of Refuge" in the United States in 1825, followed by Boston and Philadelphia in 1828. These institutions were designed to prevent civil unrest by maintaining class status. (Krisberg & Austin 1993)

The purpose of these juvenile facilities, aka training schools, was to isolate the juvenile delinquents from the corruption of the hard adult criminals, and to provide the discipline and guidance. A large part of the adjudicated minor's daily schedule was devoted to supervised labor for the purpose of education and discipline, but also to support the operating expenses. In addition, students were taught literacy and religion. Today training schools continue to house a large number of juvenile offenders. However, over the years the emphasis changed toward recovery with individualized diagnosis and treatment, improved education and rehabilitations services.

Later in the 19th century, the industrial age transformed the workplace to one in which workers required an increasingly complex skill set (Ainsworth 1995). Manufacturing began focusing on production of interchangeable parts with repeatable precision and mass production. With steam power, electrical power and internal combustion engines came use of production machinery that required specific learned skill sets to operate (Horrell 1995). As these skills took time to acquire, youths necessitated a longer transition between childhood and working adult. Thus the concept of adolescence began to develop, and so did the idea that the responsibilities of this newly defined demographic should be different from adults. In what is now know as the Progressive Era, laws were enacted requiring school attendance, limiting the hours of employment, and increasing the age at which one could marry (Ainsworth 1995). During this time period, more parents began working outside of the home, and therefore could not home-school their children. The burden of educating children, both academically and socially then fell upon the school system (Berns 2010).

Prior to this Progressive Era, there was no separate juvenile justice system, and juvenile offenders were prosecuted under the same criminal law constructs as adults (Ainsworth 1991). Some additional protections were afforded to youths, however, as immaturity could be used to reduce culpability. For example, depending on jurisdiction, "infancy" was considered an absolute defense until the age of 7 or 10. After that, there was a presumption that a youth was incapable of forming criminal intent until the age of 14. This presumption could be rebutted, however, if the prosecution could present sufficient evidence of maturity. (Melton 2007, Scott 2002). Children fourteen and older were presumed capable of understanding wrongfulness, but the defense could rebut this presumption by establishing immaturity.


In 1899, the nation's first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois (Mack 1909). In these first juvenile courts, instead of the adversarial trials of adult courts, in which an answer to the question of guilt versus innocence was sought, judges investigated the character and social background of children. They attempted to interpret the reasons and motivations behind children's actions to help determine their moral character (Steinberg 2009). Instead of using terminology like guilt, innocence, trial or sentence, these courts spoke of adjudication and disposition. Instead of focusing on the offense at hand, they focused on the best interests of the juvenile (Wizner 1977). As such these courts began to distance themselves from adult criminal courts by seeking rehabilitation for youths rather than punishment (Steinberg 2009).

Since the objective was treatment, the proceedings of these courts differed significantly from criminal courts. Due process and rules of evidence were viewed as unnecessary and possibly detrimental to the goal of assisting the wayward youths. With the key question being amenability to treatment, rather than culpability, social workers, probation officers, and mental health professionals played key roles, as they were best equipped to answer the question at hand. (Melton 2007).

Additionally, children could be adjudicated for "status offenses," behaviors that were illegal for a person under the age of 18, but legal if committed by an adult. These offenses include sexual acts, alcohol consumption, smoking cigarettes, running away, and truancy. Under the public policy of parens patriae (power of the state to protect the individuals who need protection) the juvenile courts were given control over all juvenile matters, both delinquent (i.e. criminal) and status offence matters. Unfortunately, children were often adjudicated into reform schools for both delinquent matters and status offences without due processes and for unreasonable durations.

In 1974, National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act was enacted. The purpose of this act was to give the states money in order to enact four core items: a) deinstitutionalize juvenile status offenders from detention centers and jails, b) to provide the "sight and sound" separation between juvenile and adult offenders, c) prevent imprisonment of youth in adult jails, and d) for states to address the issue of over-representation of minorities in the justice system (Hawkins 1985) .

Children could also be adjudicated for "predeliquency," even if no crime was yet committed, as long as they had caused trouble for an authority figure (Platt from Quinney 1974).


However, U.S. Supreme Court noticed this imbalance in juvenile rights and responded. In 1966, Kent v. United States began a surge of reformations aimed at providing juveniles rights similar to defendants in criminal courts. The petitioner in Kent v. United States was a 16-year-old male who was arrested for charges of housebreaking, robbery, and rape. As a 16 year old, he was subject to the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, unless after a "full investigation," that court waived jurisdiction and remanded him to the District Court for trial. He was waived to the District Court after a "full investigation," but without due process or assistance of counsel [check this fact] but he moved to dismiss this indictment and was overruled. The United States Court of Appeals upheld this decision, but the United States Supreme Court reversed the decision, stating that due process and assistance of counsel are necessary in order for such a waiver to occur. Justice Fortas said, "…the child receives the worst of both worlds: he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children." (Kent v US 1966).

A year later, the US Supreme Court expanded the rights of minors facing charges in their decision on the case of In re Gault. Gerald Gault was a 15-year-old male who was brought into custody for making obscene phone calls. His parents were not notified of his arrest, they were not officially notified of his charges, and he was not given to opportunity to confront his accuser. Despite the lack of due process, Gault was committed to the State Industrial School for six years as a juvenile delinquent. The US Supreme Court opined that in most cases the constitutional protections afforded to adults facing criminal charges should also apply to youths. As such, juveniles had a right to be advised of their right to counsel, have timely notice of their hearings, cross-examine witnesses testifying against them, and invoke their right against self-incrimination. (In re Gault 1967)

In 1969, the Supreme Court heard a case in which Samuel Winship, a 12 year old, was charged as a juvenile delinquent for stealing $112 from a woman's purse. In the New York Family Court, at that time, the standard for proving a juvenile's guilt was based on "preponderance of evidence" (i.e., more likely than not). Using this standard, Winship was found guilty, even though the Family Court acknowledged that the evidence against Winship would not meet the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt," the much higher standard used in criminal courts. The Supreme Court ruled that the standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt" must be used in all criminal cases, both for adults and for juveniles (in re Winship 1969).

Despite the changes that occurred from these cases, The US Supreme Court continued to support significant differences between juvenile adjudication courts and adult criminal courts. For example, the Supreme Court drew the line at the right to jury trials for youths in McKeiver v Pennsylvania in 1971. Justice Harry Blackmun wrote that juveniles were entitled to some, but not all of the constitutional rights of adults in the criminal justice process. (Kaye from Supreme Court Journal and McKeiver).

In 1975, The Supreme Court upheld the ideal that the juvenile justice system was a more benevolent entity than the adult justice system, and that it offered significant social benefits. Through their decision in Breed v. Jones, the Court gave youths the protection against double jeopardy in transfers to adult courts and opined that having such waiver hearings prior to adjudication hearings would not unduly strain the juvenile justice system. (Kaye again and Breed v. Jones).

Utilizing the hypothesis of "evolving standards of decency" cited in its 2002 decision in Atkins v. Virginia that based on the Eighth Amendment it is cruel and unusual to execute a mentally retarded individual, In 2005 the Supreme Court of the United States held that it is unconstitutional to impose death sentence if the perpetrator was less than 18 years of age at the time of the crime. (Roper v. Simmons 2005).


In the late 1980s, there was a significant increase in lethal violence perpetrated by youths. By 1994, homicides and aggravated assaults committed by teens ages 13 to 17 more than doubled. School violence in the suburbs and small towns nationwide was also on the rise (Grisso 2004). Public opinion in 1991 greatly favored punishing juvenile offenders who committed serious violent offenses, drug dealers, and serious property offenders. However, the majority of people did not think that incarceration of juvenile offenders in adult facilities was appropriate. Public opinion changed, however in the early 21st century, when a public poll showed that the majority of respondents favored treating violent, juvenile offenders between the ages of 14 and 17 the same as adults. (textbook… need original sources) The legislatures in most states responded to the public opinion that juvenile crime was reaching epidemic proportions by increasingly modeling their juvenile justice system after their adult criminal systems. This resulted in lowering the age and broadening the offense criteria for trying teenagers in adult criminal court as opposed to juvenile court (Grisson 2004).


This is a complex issue that spends many boundaries and touches many lives. As long as we are open to discuss the controversies that exist within the system we will be able to improve on what we currently have.

One of these controversies is a question whether lack of punishment a cause of increase in juvenile violent crimes. During the period between 1970s and 1990s the juvenile justice system became more adjudicative than punitive. During the same period rates of juvenile violent crimes had grown almost twice as fast as the adult crime rates (Fox 1996).

Another controversy is about blanket provisions that transfer juvenile offenses from juvenile to adult justice system (Howell 2008). The issue is that currently, 23 states do not specify a minimum age for transfer to adult court for one or more of the offense classifications. In addition, 46 states allow transfer of a case into the adult criminal system based on the type of the offense. (Griffin 1998)

Yet another controversy is whether juvenile status offense laws justified or if they should be abolished. Many behavioral health experts believe that status offense behaviors are precursors to more serious crimes (Wizner 1991).


The original theory behind separating juvenile offenders from adult offenders was to provide care and direction for youngsters instead of isolation and punishment. This idea took hold in the 19th century and became mainstream by the early 20th century. In 1950s and 1960s the public concern grew because or perceived lack of effectiveness and lack of rights. The Supreme Court made a series of rulings solidifying juvenile rights including right to receive notice of charges, right to have an attorney, and proof of beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1980s the public view was that the juvenile court system was too lenient and that juvenile crimes were on the rise. In 1990s many states passed punitive laws, including mandatory sentencing and blanket transfers to adult courts for certain crimes. As a result, the pendulum is now swinging back toward the middle from rehabilitation toward punishment.