The system of juvenile justice in the United States has been a magnet for controversy and debate for decades. Social reformers have long advocated for rehabilitative approaches in dealing with delinquent youth and decry modern trends in juvenile justice modeled after the system that prosecutes adults. Their views often contrast with those who feel stricter penalties are necessary to serve up justice and to steer young people away from delinquency. Statistics show the scope and costs of juvenile justice to US society: In 2006, about 2 million youth were arrested, and half of their cases were heard in juvenile courts. That same year, California spent approximately $200 million on juvenile corrections alone.

The development of China’s juvenile court system—an effort that Dui Hua is actively supporting—means juvenile justice may well receive more emphasis in the human rights dialogues conducted between Chinese officials and Dui Hua as well as officials in the United States. For all involved, an important component of such a dialogue is a basic understanding of the state and challenges of the US juvenile justice system.

Background of US Juvenile Justice

The US juvenile system was largely born out of progressive ethical leanings of the 19th century, when distinctions began to be made between delinquency of children and criminality of adults. Prior to an established youth system, the New York House of Refuge became the first institution for accommodating juvenile delinquents, and similar institutions were set up in other cities and states. Before this time, those under the age of seventeen who committed offenses had their cases heard in the same criminal justice system as adults and, if found delinquent, were incarcerated with adult offenders.

Citing psychological factors, many political and social reformers sought a more appropriate system for juvenile offenders. In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Illinois, with a philosophy of protecting the public and serving the best interests of youth. Unlike the adult system, which centered on prosecution, the juvenile court had a more benevolent mission: to build informal and civil processes for rehabilitating offenders. This established a localized version of juvenile justice that is reflected in the fact that US states administer their own systems, with some important variations in laws from state to state.

From the 1960s, questions began to arise about the effectiveness of the progressive model of juvenile justice. Critics felt the system was failing to rehabilitate youth and that sterner punishment—usually longer sentences proportional to those given out in the criminal justice system—could “scare straight” young people and better protect society. Over the course of a decade, Supreme Court rulings on several lawsuits led to legislation affording youth due process of legal rights during criminal proceedings that had only been provided to adults. These included the rights for obtaining notice of charges, legal counsel, and “privilege against self-incrimination”—changes that, in effect, would pave the way for less distinction between justice standards applied to youth and adult offenders.

While states run their own systems, federal laws have developed guideposts for administering justice and created baselines for the treatment of juvenile delinquents. In 1974, the passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) brought about federally-funded, community-based initiatives meant to decrease juvenile offenses. The expectation under the act has been that states uphold minimal standards to protect youth, such as separating minors from adult criminals and also assessing and reducing disproportionate minority confinement.

But around the same time, the US public began to demand heavier penalties in response to rising rates of serious and violent juvenile offenses, an outcry that led to more punitive juvenile justice legislation. By the mid-1990s, violent crime by youth had peaked, and almost all US states passed laws making it easier to try juveniles in adult criminal courts and loosening formerly tight regulations that, among other things, protected the confidentiality of juveniles.

The Basic Wheels of Justice

Juvenile courts handle cases of minors between the ages of seven and seventeen years of age and have historically used terminology to distinguish themselves from the criminal justice system—calling juveniles “delinquent” of “offenses” (instead of “guilty” of “crimes”). In addition, juveniles face “hearings” within the system, not “trials.”

After a juvenile is arrested, it must be decided if the youth should be placed in secure detention, which would ensure appearance in court while protecting the community. If a case goes to a formal hearing, a judge can determine whether to adjudicate the case—to decide if a juvenile is responsible for an alleged delinquent act—or conduct a “waiver” hearing to see if the case should be moved to a criminal court based on factors such as the severity of the offense, the juvenile’s age and prior record, and his or her openness to rehabilitation. Juvenile offenders face a variety of sentencing options that may include community-based and residential programs.

Is the “Juvenile System” Fit for Youth?

Several reforms that policymakers have pushed forward over the past several decades—ones ostensibly aimed at protecting the rights of youth and creating an aversion toward jail among them—have blurred the lines between juvenile justice and the adult criminal justice system.

For serious offenses, judges routinely issue “waivers” that transfer youth cases into the criminal justice system. Many states exclude repeat juvenile offenders from the juvenile system, and about half of all US states have no minimum age at which to transfer juveniles. Some states have started to remove judicial discretion over waivers and eliminate consideration of cases on an individual basis, instead making greater use of mandatory waivers that transfer juvenile cases to the criminal justice system more quickly.

Advocates for less severe treatment of juvenile offenders insist the rationale for stricter processes and penalties does not mesh with the facts—and that juvenile crime, including incidences of violent offenses, has statistically decreased. They have argued the current system fails to ensure legal rights for minors, who are vulnerable to coercion by interrogators, and that families may be denied access to youth in custody. Perhaps most importantly, they contend the juvenile system can work even for youth who commit serious offenses, and that stricter treatment often worsens the problems of juvenile crime. Indeed, studies have found that youth transferred to adult prisons have a higher recidivism rate—and are more likely to commit more serious offenses—than those held in juvenile detention facilities.

Some key institutions seek widespread system reform. At the forefront, the MacArthur Foundation aims to create replicable models for successful juvenile justice, and funds initiatives exploring the psychological and cognitive capacities of youth and the possible incompatibility of their inner makeup with treatment received in the criminal justice system.

No Easy Solutions

Many problems lie in the path to a better overall system. A lack of collaboration among juvenile justice systems, community institutions, and schools has impeded development of effective programs for offenders, and reintegrating youth who are outside the educational system is a constant struggle. Some feel that intense criticism of the system—and the number of juvenile cases already being re-assigned to criminal courts—makes it vulnerable to complete abolition. But a point of unity among those who strive for reforms is that juvenile justice should balance effective, suitable punishment with the best possible outcomes for youth and society. And not unlike the juveniles in the system, anyone analyzing areas of concern must confront difficult choices that can make all the difference.