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Understanding the Juvenile Justice System: History, Theories, and Key Cases

This article was originally written in 2018 as a student paper for the CJ 340 Juvenile Justice System course at Minot State University.


In the realm of criminal justice, there exists a distinct system dedicated to addressing offenses committed by juveniles. Contrasted with the adult criminal justice system, the juvenile justice system operates with different principles and objectives. This blog post aims to provide an informative analysis of the criminal justice system in comparison to the juvenile justice system, emphasizing the doctrine of Parens Patriae. Additionally, it delves into the history of juvenile justice, highlighting significant milestones, Acts, and cases that have shaped its evolution. Furthermore, the post explores the strengths and weaknesses of two prominent crime reporting programs, the Unified Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Finally, it examines three theories concerning juvenile delinquency and explores landmark cases that have established precedents for applying the death penalty to juvenile offenders.

Contrasting the Criminal Justice System and Juvenile Justice System:

The criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system differ significantly in terms of those they respectively process. While the criminal justice system focuses on processing adults as criminals, the juvenile justice system primarily handles juveniles for delinquent behavior. One of the key distinctions is that juveniles do not have the right to a jury trial, unlike adults in the criminal system. Moreover, juvenile proceedings are less formal and more lenient in terms of court procedures. Underlying the juvenile justice system is the legal concept of Parens Patriae, which translates to “Parent of the Nation.” This doctrine recognizes the government as the legal guardian of youth, assuming responsibility for their welfare.

The Historical Development of Juvenile Justice:

The origins of juvenile justice can be traced back to 16th-century England, where children as young as seven were treated as adults. The concept of Parens Patriae gradually emerged, emphasizing the state’s role in ensuring children’s well-being. Workhouses were introduced as facilities where youth offenders would serve their sentences while engaging in productive work. Wealthy individuals also established houses of refuge to provide housing and support for children in need. In the 19th century, the emergence of child savers marked the beginning of a formalized juvenile justice system. Notable Acts, such as the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899, established the first juvenile court in the United States, functioning as a social welfare system that aimed to determine the best courses of action for offending children. Landmark cases, including Kent v. United States (1966) and In re Gault (1967), granted juveniles rights similar to those enjoyed by adults.

Exploring the UCR and NCVS:

The Unified Crime Reports (UCR), launched by the FBI in 1929, is a program that compiles data on crimes reported by law enforcement agencies. The UCR encompasses 21 types of crimes, but its primary weakness lies in its reliance on reported crimes, potentially excluding unreported incidents. On the other hand, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), initiated by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 1973, collects data through surveys conducted with citizens. Unlike the UCR, the NCVS includes crimes both reported and unreported to law enforcement, providing a more comprehensive picture. However, the NCVS has its limitations, as some victims may provide inaccurate information due to various reasons, such as fear or personal bias.

Examining Theories of Juvenile Delinquency:

Several theories attempt to explain juvenile delinquency, including classical, biological, psychological, and sociological perspectives. Classical theories propose that individuals weigh the advantages and disadvantages of their actions, with punishment acting as a deterrent to crime. Biological theories suggest that biological and genetic factors hinder rational decision-making and moral understanding. Psychological theories focus on mental issues acquired during a juvenile’s formative years, which may contribute to criminal behavior. Sociological theories highlight external factors such as family, friends, and society, which play a significant role in delinquency. From a personal perspective, external factors likely account for the majority of youth delinquency.

Landmark Cases: Kent v. United States, In Re Gault, and In Re Winship:

Kent v. United States (1966) involved Morris Kent, a 16-year-old charged with rape and robbery. The Supreme Court determined that the juvenile court had not conducted a sufficient investigation and that Kent had been denied a hearing, access to counsel, and his record. This case established the requirement for a hearing prior to waiving a juvenile’s jurisdiction and affirmed the right to counsel during such hearings. In Re Gault (1967) involved Gerald Gault, a 15-year-old who made an obscene phone call and was committed to a state industrial school without his parents’ knowledge. The Supreme Court ruled that Gault’s rights had been violated and established various rights enjoyed by the criminal justice system, including the right to notice of charges. In Re Winship (1970) focused on Samuel Winship, a 12-year-old charged with theft. The Supreme Court ruled that the standard of proof in juvenile court should be beyond a reasonable doubt, mirroring the criminal justice system’s standard.

Precedents for the Death Penalty: Eddings v. Oklahoma, Thompson v. Oklahoma, and Roper v. Simmons:

Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982) involved Monty Lee Eddings, a 16-year-old convicted of killing a patrolman. The Supreme Court ruled that courts must consider mitigating factors, even if they are considered insignificant, and affirmed the legality of executing 16-year-olds. Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988) concerned a 15-year-old sentenced to death for murder. The Supreme Court deemed the execution of offenders under the age of 16 as cruel and unusual punishment, setting the minimum age for execution at 16. Roper v. Simmons (2005) revolved around Christopher Simmons, sentenced to death at 17. The Supreme Court ruled that executing minors violated the Eighth Amendment, establishing the minimum age for execution at 18.

Understanding the complexities of the criminal justice system and the juvenile justice system is crucial for comprehending the legal framework that governs the treatment of individuals at different stages of life. The historical development of juvenile justice, the strengths and weaknesses of crime reporting programs, the exploration of theories explaining juvenile delinquency, and the examination of landmark cases contribute to our understanding of the intricacies and evolution of the juvenile justice system.


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