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Evolution of the American Juvenile Justice System

Origin: The Puritan Period (1646-1824)

It was the first set of measures enacted by early colonists to solve the problem of troublesome children. At the time, no laws treated children as criminals, and they were instead treated as adults. Puritanism was the Christian religious reform of the century that had overtaken the colony (Bonnie, 2013). These groups wanted to instruct order among their young members and, in 1646, enacted the Massachusetts Stubborn Child Law (Field, 2020). It stated that children with bad behaviour were evil and were disturbed by evil supernatural forces. Parents and relatives were given full control to deal with the young offenders, and if proven too difficult to handle, the state would do so by killing the child.

Rehabilitative Era: The Refugee Period (1824-1899)

This period birthed the Progressive era. People became increasingly concerned about the plight of immigrant children. Progressives wanted the government to play a key role in guiding how to deal with unruly children (Bonnie, 2013). Poor immigrant children were often left alone by their parents to fend for themselves. It allowed them to litter the streets, birthing the name of street children, and commit crimes (Bonnie, 2013). Reforms included mandatory schooling and improvement in child labour laws. Children were granted special rights and could be tried outside of adult laws. The purpose, however, was not to punish the child; rather, it would be to rehabilitate them. Delinquent children were not considered evil; rather, they were described as unwary but had the potential to change their ways.

Due Process Era

This era began the legal process of planning and documenting juvenile rights. Progressives pushed that the government play a deeper role in directing children’s affairs, claiming they were the country’s future (Feld, 2020). It was enacted in two formats:

The Juvenile Court Period (1899-1960)

It began with the creation of the first juvenile court. Vestige was issued through the Passage of the Juvenile Court Act of Illinois in 1899 (Bonnie, 2013). This court was given the power to issue probations, sentences, and parole for children who failed to follow the rules. However, they were tried with the aim of reform. People still believed the children could reform and used the system to push change, earning the name child savers. Flexible procedures were used to rehabilitate the offenders.

The Juvenile Rights Period (1960-1980)

It was the period that the US Supreme Court increased the legal prerogatives for children and young adults. Juveniles were granted the right to counsel, a fair trial, and a consent statement. Children were to be informed of their errors, and the court was to conduct a procedural criminal trial with lawyers and evidence (Feld, 2020). Children’s prisons were built where the children could be housed separately. The legal parameters were expanded to cushion the child from the failures of the law to protect their interests. Children could face harsher sentences than adults because no legal blockades worked for them.

Getting Tough on Juvenile Offenders: The Crime Control Period (1980-2005)

This legal reform was triggered by the country’s rising violence and crime rate. In the past, the law had bent over backwards to accommodate delinquent children and had failed in multiple instances. However, due to the increased violence among the youth, the government started to crack down on juveniles. Society uprooted the idea of delinquent children as wayward and started seeing them as criminals. Trials were conducted equally for children as adults; the only difference was that the children were given a more lenient sentence (Bonnie, 2013). However, the leniency only worked on petty offences as criminal offences warranted criminal charges that could be pushed to the extent that adults faced.

Rethink of the Justice System: The Kids are Different Period (2005-Modern Day)

After the youth crime rates reduced in the eighties and nineties, people started to question the usefulness of the juvenile system. Children, for instance, are again being reimagined to be different from adults. Modern science and psychology are aiding court cases when dealing with juveniles helping showcase the difference in psychological capabilities between adults and children (Feld, 2020). Crime was also better reduced using community policies rather than strict government laws, which caused a great disruption in societal affairs and increased impact.


In my view, the Crime Control Period was the most revolutionary aspect of the juvenile system. The abrupt change in policy and societal views greatly impacted society as the number of incarcerations grew. It means more children lost many lives while in prison for crimes since they were tried as adults. Confining the youth also impacts communities’ economic development since youth are most nations’ labour force.


Feld, B. C. (2020). The Evolution of the Juvenile Court. In New York University Press eBooks.

Bonnie, R. J. (2013). Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Developmental Approach.


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