Juvenile Justice System Paper

Juvenile Justice System Paper

Juvenile Justice System Paper

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Write a 700- to 1,050-word paper summarizing the key parameters of the juvenile justice system in the United States. Address the following:

  • The historical development of the juvenile justice system. Use case law or legislation to strengthen your discussion.
  • Predominant philosophy of the juvenile system
  • Key differences between the juvenile and adult systems
  • Distinguish between dependency and delinquency
  • The reasoning behind and the importance of confidentiality in juvenile court

Format your paper consistent with APA guidelines.

An Overview of Juvenile Justice in the United States


(HO/AFP/Getty Images/Newscom)

Learning objectives


· Explain the concept of parens patriae.

· Differentiate between the types of juvenile offenders, including delinquents and status offenders.

· Explain the structure of the juvenile justice system and the roles and functions of various juvenile justice agencies.

· Summarize how juvenile offenders are processed through the criminal justice system.

· Understand the meaning of the deinstitutionalization of status offenders.


The juvenile justice system is unique. This book explains the system and how it has evolved. The organization of this chapter is as follows: First, the juvenile justice system is described. Certain features of juvenile justice are similar in all states. Various professionals work with youth, and they represent both public and private agencies and organizations. From police officers to counselors, professionals endeavor to improve the lives of youth.

Every jurisdiction has its own criteria for determining who juveniles are and whether they are under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. A majority of states classify juveniles as youth who range in age from 7 to 17 years, and juvenile courts in these states have jurisdiction over these youth. Some states have no minimum-age provisions and consider each case on its own merits, regardless of the age of the juvenile.

Because juveniles are not considered adults and, therefore, fully responsible for some of their actions, special laws have been established that pertain only to them. Thus, violations specific to juveniles are referred to as status offenses. Juveniles who commit such infractions are categorized as status offenders. Juveniles who engage in acts that are categorized as crimes are juvenile delinquents, and their actions are labeled juvenile delinquency. In brief, delinquent acts for youth would be crimes if committed by adults. By contrast, status offenses are not considered crimes if adults engage in them. Examples of status offenses include runaway behavior, truancy, unruly behavior, and curfew violation. The characteristics of youth involved in such behaviors will also be described.

In 1974, the U.S. Congress enacted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). This act, although not binding on the states, encouraged all states to remove their status offenders from secure institutions—namely secure juvenile residential or custodial facilities—where they were being held. States subsequently removed status offenders from institutions and placed these youth with community, social service, or welfare agencies. This process is called the deinstitutionalization of status offenses (DSO) and will be described in some detail.

Next, a general overview of the juvenile justice system is presented. While later chapters will focus upon each of these components in greater detail, the juvenile justice system consists of the processes involved whenever juveniles come in contact with law enforcement. Several parallels exist between the criminal and juvenile justice systems. For those juveniles who advance further into the system, prosecutors make decisions about which cases to pursue. The prosecutors’ decisions are often preceded by petitions from different parties requesting a formal juvenile court proceeding. These youth have their cases adjudicated. Compared to criminal court judges, however, juvenile court judges have a more limited range of sanctions. Juvenile court judges may impose nominal, conditional, or custodial dispositions. These dispositions will be described more fully in the following sections.

The Juvenile Justice System

The juvenile justice system, similar to criminal justice, consists of a network of agencies, institutions, organizations, and personnel that process juvenile offenders. This network is made up of law enforcement agencies, also known as law enforcement; prosecution and the courts; corrections, probation, and parole services; and public and private programs that provide youth with diverse services.

The concept of juvenile justice has different meanings for individual states and for the federal government. No single, nationwide juvenile court system exists. Instead, there are 51 systems, including the District of Columbia, and most are divided into local systems delivered through either juvenile or family courts at the county level, local probation offices, state correctional agencies, and private service providers. Historically, however, these systems have a common set of core principles that distinguish them from criminal courts for adult offenders, including (1) limited jurisdiction (up to age 18 in most states); (2) informal proceedings; (3) focus on offenders, not their offenses; (4) indeterminate sentences; and (5) confidentiality (Feld, 2007).

When referring to juvenile justice, the terms process and system are used. The “system” connotation refers to a condition of homeostasis, equilibrium, or balance among the various components of the system. By contrast, “process” focuses on the different actions and contributions of each component in dealing with juvenile offenders at various stages of the processing through the juvenile justice system. A “system” also suggests coordination among elements in an efficient production process; however, communication and coordination among juvenile agencies, organizations, and personnel in the juvenile justice system may be inadequate or limited (Congressional Research Office, 2007).

In addition, different criteria are used to define juveniles in states and the federal jurisdiction. Within each of these jurisdictions, certain mechanisms exist for categorizing particular juveniles as adults so that they may be legally processed by the adult counterpart to juvenile justice, the criminal justice system. During the 1990s, a number of state legislatures enacted procedures to make it easier to transfer jurisdiction to the adult system (Snyder and Sickmund, 2006). These changes signaled a shift in the perception of youth, who were now being viewed as adults and subject to the same processes and most of the same sanctions.

Who Are Juvenile Offenders?

Juvenile Offenders Defined

Juvenile offenders are classified and defined according to several different criteria. According to the 1899 Illinois Act that created juvenile courts, the jurisdiction of such courts would extend to all juveniles under the age of 16 who were found in violation of any state or local law or ordinance (Ferzan, 2008). About one-fifth of all states place the upper age limit for juveniles at either 15 or 16 years. In most other states, the upper age limit for juveniles is under 18 years; an exception is Wyoming, where the upper age limit is 19 years. Ordinarily, the jurisdiction of juvenile courts includes all juveniles between the ages of 7 and 18. Federal law defines juveniles as any persons who have not attained their 18th birthday (18 U.S.C., Sec. 5031, 2009).

The Age Jurisdiction of Juvenile Courts

The age jurisdiction of juvenile courts is determined through established legislative definitions among the states. The federal government has no juvenile court. Although upper and lower age limits are prescribed, these age requirements are not uniform among jurisdictions. Common law has been applied in many jurisdictions where the minimum age of accountability for juveniles is seven years. Youth under the age of seven are presumed to be incapable of formulating criminal intent and are thus not responsible under the law. While this presumption may be refuted, the issue is rarely raised. Thus, if a six-year-old child kills someone, deliberately or accidentally, he or she likely will be treated rather than punished. In some states, no lower age limits exist to restrict juvenile court jurisdiction. Table 1.1 shows the upper age limits for most U.S. jurisdictions.

Table 1.1 Age at Which Criminal Courts Gain Jurisdiction over Youthful Offenders, 2008

Age (years) States
16 New York and North Carolina
17 Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Texas
18 Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Federal Districts
19 Wyoming

Source: Jeffrey A. Butts, Howard N. Snyder, Terrence A. Finnegan, Anne L. Aughenbagh, and Rowen S. Poole (1996). Juvenile Court Statistics 1993: Statistics Report. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Updated 2011 by authors.

The states with the lowest maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction include New York and North Carolina. In these states, the lowest maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction is 15. The states with the lowest maximum age of 16 for juvenile court jurisdiction are Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin (Szymanski, 2007). All other states and the federal government use 18 years as the minimum age for criminal court jurisdiction. Under the JJDPA, juveniles are individuals who have not reached their 18th birthday (18 U.S.C., Sec. 5031, 2009).

Juvenile offenders who are especially young (under age seven in most jurisdictions) are often placed in the care or custody of community agencies, such as departments of human services or social welfare. Instead of punishing children under the age of seven, various kinds of treatment, including psychological counseling, may be required. Some states have further age-accountability provisions. Tennessee, for instance, presumes that juveniles between the ages of 7 and 12 are accountable for their delinquent acts, although this presumption may be overcome by their attorneys through effective oral arguments and clear and convincing evidence.

Some states have no minimum age limit for juveniles. Technically, these states can decide matters involving children of any age. This control can result in the placement of children or infants in foster homes or under the supervision of community service or human welfare agencies. Neglected, unmanageable, abused, or other children in need of supervision are placed in the custody of these various agencies at the discretion of juvenile court judges. Thus, juvenile courts generally have broad discretionary power over most persons under the age of 18. Under certain circumstances that will be discussed in a later chapter, some juveniles, particularly 11- and 12-year-olds, may be treated as adults in order to prosecute them in criminal court for alleged serious crimes.

Parens Patriae

Parens patriae is a concept that originated with the King of England during the 12th century. It literally means “the father of the country.” Applied to juvenile matters, parens patriae means that the king is in charge of, makes decisions about, and has the responsibility for all matters involving juveniles. Within the scope of early English common law, parents had primary responsibility in rearing children. However, as children advanced beyond the age of seven, they acquired some measure of responsibility for their own actions. Accountability to parents was shifted gradually to the state whenever youth seven years of age or older violated the law. In the name of the king, chancellors in various districts adjudicated matters involving juveniles and the offenses they committed. Juveniles had no legal rights or standing in any court; they were the sole responsibility of the king or his agents. Their future depended largely upon chancellor decisions. In effect, children were wards of the court, and the court was vested with the responsibility of safeguarding their welfare (McGhee and Waterhouse, 2007).

Chancery courts of 12th- and 13th-century England (and in later years) performed various tasks, including the management of children and their affairs as well as care for the mentally ill and incompetent. Therefore, an early division of labor was created, involving a three-way relationship among the child, the parent, and the state. The underlying thesis of parens patriae was that the parents were merely the agents of society in the area of childrearing, and that the state had the primary and legitimate interest in the upbringing of children. Thus, parens patriae established a type of fiduciary or trust-like parent–child relationship, with the state able to exercise the right of intervention to limit parental rights (Friday and Ren, 2006).

Since children could become wards of the court and subject to its control, the chancellors were concerned about the future welfare of these children. The welfare interests of chancellors and their actions led to numerous rehabilitative and/or treatment measures, including placement of children in foster homes or assigning them to perform various tasks or work for local merchants (Rockhill, Green, and Furrer, 2007). Parents had minimal influence on these child placement decisions.

In the context of parens patriae, it is easy to trace this early philosophy of child management and its influence on subsequent events in the United States, such as the child savers movement, houses of refuge, and reform schools. These latter developments were both private and public attempts to rescue children from their environments and meet some or all of their needs through various forms of institutionalization.

Modern Interpretations of Parens Patriae

Parens patriae continues in all juvenile court jurisdictions in the United States. The persistence of this doctrine is evidenced by the wide range of dispositional options available to juvenile court judges and others involved with the early stages of offender processing in the juvenile justice system. Typically, these dispositional options are either nominal or conditional, meaning that the confinement of any juvenile for most offenses is regarded as a last resort. Nominal or conditional options involve various sanctions (e.g., verbal warnings or reprimands, diversion, probation, making financial restitution to victims, performance of community service, participation in individual or group therapy, or involvement in educational programs), and they are intended to reflect the rehabilitative ideal that has been a major philosophical underpinning of parens patriae.

The Get-Tough Movement

The treatment or rehabilitative orientation reflected by parens patriae, however, is somewhat in conflict with the themes of accountability and due process. Contemporary juvenile court jurisprudence stresses individual accountability for one’s actions. The get-tough movement emphasizes swifter, harsher, and more certain justice and punishment than the previously dominant, rehabilitative philosophy of American courts (Mears et al., 2007). Overall, youth are viewed as “mini-adults” who make rational choices that include the deliberate decision to engage in crime (Merlo and Benekos, 2000). In the last 20 years, states have modified their statutes to allow release of the names of juveniles to the media, to allow prosecutors to decide which youth should be transferred to adult court, and to open juvenile court proceedings to the public. These actions are consistent with a more punitive attitude toward youth (Merlo, 2000).

For juveniles, this includes the use of nonsecure and secure custody and sanctions that involve placement in group homes or juvenile facilities. For juveniles charged with violent offenses, this means transfer to the criminal courts, where more severe punishments, such as long prison sentences or even life imprisonment, can be imposed. Although legislatures have enacted laws making it possible to transfer youth to adult court, it is not clear that these policies reflect the public’s opinion regarding how best to address juvenile offending (Applegate, Davis, and Cullen, 2009). The public may favor a juvenile justice system separate from the adult criminal justice system, and evidence suggests a strong preference for a system that disposes most juveniles to treatment or counseling programs in lieu of incarceration, even for repeat offenders (Applegate, Davis, and Cullen, 2009; Piquero et al., 2010).

Parens patriae has been subject to the U.S. Supreme Court’s interpretation of the constitutional rights of juveniles. Since the mid-1960s, the Supreme Court has afforded youth constitutional rights, and some of these are commensurate with the rights enjoyed by adults in criminal courts. The Court’s decisions to apply constitutional rights to juvenile delinquency proceedings have resulted in a gradual transformation of the juvenile court toward greater criminalization. As juvenile cases become more like adult cases, they may be less susceptible to the influence of parens patriae.

Another factor is the gradual transformation of the role of prosecutors in juvenile courts. As more prosecutors actively pursue cases against juvenile defendants, the entire juvenile justice process may weaken the delinquency prevention role of juvenile courts (Sungi, 2008). Thus, more aggressive prosecution of juvenile cases is perceived as moving away from delinquency prevention for the purpose of deterring youth from future adult criminality. Fifteen states, according to Snyder and Sickmund (2006), now authorize prosecutors to decide whether to try a case in adult criminal court or juvenile court. The intentions of prosecutors are to ensure that youth are entitled to due process, but the social costs may be to label these youth in ways that will propel them toward, rather than away from, adult criminality (Mears et al., 2007).

Juvenile Delinquents and Delinquency

Juvenile Delinquents

Legally, a juvenile delinquent is any youth under a specified age who has violated a criminal law or engages in disobedient, indecent, or immoral conduct and is in need of treatment, rehabilitation, or supervision. A juvenile delinquent is a delinquent child (Champion, 2009). These definitions can be ambiguous. What is “indecent” or “immoral conduct?” Who needs treatment, rehabilitation, or supervision? And what sort of treatment, rehabilitation, or supervision is needed?

Juvenile Delinquency

Federal law says that juvenile delinquency is the violation of any law of the United States by a person before his or her 18th birthday that would be a crime if committed by an adult (18 U.S.C., Sec. 5031, 2009). A broader, legally applicable definition of juvenile delinquency is a violation of any state or local law or ordinance by anyone who has not yet achieved the age of majority. These definitions are qualitatively more precise than the previously cited ones.

Definitions of Delinquents and Delinquency

Juvenile courts often define juveniles and juvenile delinquency according to their own standards. In some jurisdictions, a delinquent act can be defined in various ways. To illustrate the implications of such a definition for any juvenile, consider the following scenarios:

Scenario 1 It is 10:15 P.M. on a Thursday night in Detroit. A curfew is in effect for youth under age 18 prohibiting them from being on city streets after 10:00 P.M. A police officer in a cruiser notices four juveniles standing at a street corner, holding gym bags, and conversing. One youth walks toward a nearby jewelry store, looks in the window, and returns to the group. Shortly thereafter, another boy walks up to the same jewelry store window and looks in it. The officer pulls up beside the boys, exits the vehicle, and asks them for IDs. Each of the boys has a high school identity card. The boys are 16 and 17 years of age. When asked about their interest in the jewelry store, one boy says that he plans to get his girlfriend a necklace like one in the store window, and he wanted his friends to see it. The boys then explain that they are waiting for a ride, because they are members of a team and have just finished a basketball game at a local gymnasium. One boy says, “I don’t see why you’re hassling us. We’re not doing anything wrong.” “You just did,” says the officer. He makes a call on his radio for assistance from other officers and makes all the boys sit on the curb with their hands behind their heads. Two other cruisers arrive shortly, and the boys are transported to the police station, where they are searched. The search turns up two small pocket knives and a bottle opener. The four boys are charged with “carrying concealed weapons” and “conspiracy to commit burglary.” Juvenile authorities are notified.

Career Snapshot


(Courtesy of Peter J. Benekos)

Name: Caitlin Ross

Position: Law Student

School attending: University of Maine School of Law


As an undergraduate at Mercyhurst College, I was a double major in Criminal Justice and Marriage and Family Studies. I graduated with a B.A. in each field. I worked hard in classes and maintained a high GPA, which was very important when it came time to apply to law schools. In my first two years at college, I took very broad classes so that I could explore many career options; and in my final two years, I began choosing classes that were tailored to my interests and the career path I wanted to pursue. I was able to take many prelaw and juvenile justice courses, which have greatly benefited me already. Through a constitutional law course, I was able to participate in a mock trial. I took on the role of the defense attorney, and it was an incredibly rewarding experience.

In a class of my sophomore year, I was asked to create a program that served people in some way. After doing extensive research and discovering how ineffective juvenile defense is in many areas of our country, I created a program meant to aid public defenders in educating their juvenile clients about the system and their rights. That spring, I applied for a summer internship at Pine Tree Legal Assistance in Maine, and I was offered the position because of the work I had done on my program. At Pine Tree, I obtained some experience in the legal field by handling a number of public interest cases. My summer at Pine Tree proved to me that my interest in the law was not fleeting. In the spring of my junior year, I began interning in the Juvenile Division of the Erie County Public Defender’s Office. I showed one of the defense attorneys the program I had created, and she was excited to adapt and use it because she wanted to improve her client outreach. Every Friday, we went to the local detention centers and met with her clients to discuss their cases and their due process rights. Her relationship with her clients improved quickly and significantly, and I left the internship confident that I wanted to be a juvenile defense attorney.

I also worked for a professor on campus as a research assistant. For two years, I assisted him with a research project tracking juvenile offenders processed in the adult system. In addition to this work, I wrote papers on juvenile defense and potential policy changes, and I presented them at three conferences over two years. These experiences allowed me to gain some expertise in juvenile defense as well as make connections with professors and criminal justice professionals around the country.

I took the LSAT the summer before my senior year, and in the fall, I applied to a number of law schools. I chose Maine Law for a number of reasons, including their juvenile defender’s clinic, their location, and their scholarship offer. I graduated feeling I had spent my time as an undergraduate well and was ready to take on the challenges of law school.

Advice to Students

My advice to undergraduate students is to make the most of the resources your school and community have to offer. Academic success is important, but it is not the only piece of the undergraduate experience that matters. There are many ways to explore careers and determine your strengths, such as through volunteer programs, school clubs, research opportunities with professors, and internships. Pick internships and activities related to the field in which you see yourself working: Not only will these activities “pad” your resume, they will also help you explore your interests. If you are interested in a particular office that does not do internships, ask if there is anything you can do to get involved with their work—my internship position at the public defender’s office was created for me because I asked. Create opportunities for yourself, and make the most of your college experience: Not only will you get what you want, you will also show future employers and graduate schools that you are driven and resourceful.

Scenario 2 A highway patrol officer spots two young girls with backpacks attempting to hitch a ride on a major highway in Florida. He stops his vehicle and asks the girls for IDs. They do not have any but claim they are over 18 and are trying to get to Georgia to visit some friends. The officer takes both girls into custody and to a local jail, where a subsequent identification discloses that they are, respectively, 13- and 14-year-old runaways from a Miami suburb. Their parents are looking for them. The girls are detained at the jail until their parents can retrieve them. In the meantime, a nearby convenience store reports that two young girls from off the street came in an hour earlier and shoplifted several items. Jail deputies search the backpacks of the girls and find the shoplifted items. They are charged with “theft.” Juvenile authorities are notified.

Are these scenarios the same? No. Can each of these scenarios result in a finding of delinquency by a juvenile court judge? Yes. Whether youth are “hanging out” on a street corner late at night or have shoplifted, it is possible in a juvenile court in the United States that they could be defined collectively as delinquents or delinquency cases.

Of course, some juvenile offending is more serious than other types. Breaking windows or violating curfew would certainly be less serious than armed robbery, rape, or murder. Many jurisdictions divert less serious cases away from juvenile courts and toward various community agencies, where the juveniles involved can receive assistance rather than the formal sanctions of the court.

Should one’s age, socioeconomic status, ethnicity or race, attitude, and other situational circumstances influence the police response? The reality is that juveniles experience subjective appraisals and judgments from the police, prosecutors, and juvenile court judges on the basis of both legal and extralegal factors. Because of their status as juveniles, youth may also be charged with various noncriminal acts. Such acts are broadly categorized as status offenses.

Status Offenders

Status offenders are of interest to both the juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system. Status offenses are acts committed by juveniles that would bring the juveniles to the attention of juvenile courts but would not be crimes if committed by adults. Typical status offenses include running away from home, truancy, and curfew violations. Adults would not be arrested for running away from home, truancy, or walking the streets after some established curfew for juveniles. However, juveniles who engage in these behaviors in particular cities may be grouped together with more serious juvenile offenders who are charged with armed robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, auto theft, or illicit drug sales. Overall, there has been an increase in the number of youth being processed for status offenses. From 1985 to 2004, the number of status offense cases that were petitioned to the court doubled (ACT 4 Juvenile Justice, n.d.).


It is difficult to determine exactly how many youth are runaways in the United States. Some youth actually do run away from their parents or caretakers, while others are “thrown out.” It was estimated that in 1999, more than 1.6 million youth were either runaway or thrownaway (Snyder and Sickmund, 2006). In terms of arrests for runaways, it was estimated that in 2008, there were over 100,000 arrests of runaways in the United States (Puzzanchera, 2009).


One type of status offense is underage drinking.

(Courtesy of Dean John Champion)

Runaways are those youth who leave their homes, without permission or their parents’ knowledge, and who remain away from home for periods ranging from a couple of days to several years. Many runaways are apprehended eventually by police in different jurisdictions and returned to their homes. Others return because they choose to go back. Some runaways remain permanently missing, although they likely are part of a growing number of homeless youth who roam city streets throughout the United States (Slesnick et al., 2007). Information about runaways and other types of status offenders is compiled annually through various statewide clearinghouses and the federally funded National Incidence Studies of Missing, Abducted, Runaway, and Throwaway Children (NISMART) (Sedlak, Finkelhor, and Hammer, 2005).

Runaway behavior is complex. Some research suggests that runaways can have serious mental health needs (Chen, Thrane, and Whitbeck, 2007). In addition, these youth may seek others like themselves for companionship and emotional support (Kempf-Leonard and Johansson, 2007). Runaways view similarly situated youth as role models and peers, and they may engage in delinquency with other youth. Studies of runaways indicate that boys and girls often have familial problems (e.g., neglect and parental drug use) and have been physically and sexually abused by their parents or caregivers (McNamara, 2008b). Evidence suggests that youth who run away may engage in theft or prostitution to finance their independence away from home. In addition, these youth may be exploited by peers or adults who befriend them (Armour and Haynie, 2007).

Some research confirms that runaways tend to have low self-esteem as well as an increased risk of being victimized on the streets (McNamara, 2008b). Although all runaways are not alike, there have been attempts to profile them. Depending upon how authorities and parents react to children who have been apprehended after running away, there may be either positive or negative consequences.


Youth who run away may hitchhike.

(Courtesy of Dean John Champion)

Various strategies have been used to address runaway youth. Congress first enacted the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act in 1974 (Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, 1974). In 2008, the 110th Congress amended the Act and continued to authorize funding for outreach programs, shelters, and transitional living (Reconnecting Homeless Youth Act, 2008). These services are available in many cities. On the streets, outreach workers share information about and make referrals for counseling services, medical care and treatment, and other kinds of community assistance programs. Runaway shelters have been established to offer runaways a nonthreatening residence and social support system in various jurisdictions. These shelters locate services that will help meet the runaways’ needs. Shelters are a short-term option designed to stabilize youth and, if possible, reunite them with family. Finally, services are also available for older youth who cannot return home and require assistance in moving into independent living quarters (McNamara, 2008b).

Truants and Curfew Violators


Status offenders also include truants as well as curfew and liquor law violators. Truants are those who absent themselves from school without school or parental permission. The national data on truancy rates are problematic for several reasons: One school district can define truancy differently than another district; sociodemographic characteristics of truants are not normally maintained, even by individual schools; and no consistent, central reporting mechanisms exist for data compilations about truants. For instance, one state may define a truant as a youth who absents himself or herself from school without excuse for five or more consecutive school days. In another state, a truant may be defined as someone who misses one day of school without a valid excuse.

Truancy is more likely to occur in urban schools than in suburban schools. Research suggests that truancy is a “gateway activity” (McNamara, 2008b, p. 47) for further problem behaviors ranging from gang behavior to substance abuse. For example, Chiang et al. (2007) found that about two-thirds of all male youth arrested while truant tested positive for drug use.

Truancy is not a crime. It is a status offense. Youth can be charged with truancy and brought into juvenile court for status offense adjudication. Truancy is taken quite seriously in many jurisdictions.

Several states have developed formal mechanisms to deal with the problem of truancy. The Family Court system of Rhode Island has established truancy courts to increase status offender accountability relating to truancy issues. Chronic truants are referred to the Truancy Court, where their cases are handled. The process involves the truant youth, the parents/guardians, a truant officer, and a Truancy Court magistrate. The purpose of the Truancy Court is to avoid formal juvenile court action. Youth can do this by obeying the behavioral requirements outlined, which include (1) attending school every day, (2) arriving to school on time, (3) behaving in school, and (4) completing classroom work and homework. Failure to comply with one or more of these requirements may result in a referral to Family Court or placement in a program administered by the Department of Children, Youth, and Families. The youth might be subject to increasingly punitive sanctions if the truancy persists following the Truancy Court hearing.

The Truancy Court also requires parents to sign a form that permits the release of confidential information about the truant. This information is necessary to devise a treatment program and provide any counseling or services the truant may require. Thus, the Family Court is vested with the power to evaluate, assess, and plan activities designed to prevent further truancy, and various interventions are initiated to enhance the youth’s awareness of the seriousness of truancy and the importance of staying in school.

Delaware has a truancy prevention program that is available throughout the state. Five judges deal with truant youth and their families, and they utilize an approach similar to the drug court model. The same judge works with the youth and the family throughout the process. Parents are encouraged to be responsible for their children, and the court collaborates with a number of social service agencies to work with the family and offer services to family members. Research suggests that this approach has been effective in reducing truancy in the state, and in helping youth stay in school (McNamara, 2008b).

Curfew Violators

Curfew violators are those youth who remain on city streets after specified evening hours when they are prohibited from loitering or are not in the company of a parent or guardian. In 2010, more than 73,000 youth were arrested for violating curfew and loitering laws in the United States (U.S. Department of Justice, 2011).


Shoplifting is a common delinquent offense.

(Courtesy of Dean John Champion)

In an effort to decrease the incidence of juvenile crime during the mid-1990s, many cities throughout the United States enacted curfew laws specifically applicable to youth. The theory is that if juveniles are obliged to observe curfews in their communities, they will have fewer opportunities to commit delinquent acts or status offenses (Urban, 2005). For example, in New Orleans, Louisiana, in June 1994, the most restrictive curfew law went into effect. Under this law, juveniles under age 17 were prohibited from being in public places, including the premises of business establishments, unless accompanied by a legal guardian or authorized adults. The curfew began at 8:00 P.M. on weeknights and 11:00 P.M. on weekends. Exceptions were made for youth who might be traveling to and from work or were attending school, religious, or civil events. A study on the impact of this strict curfew law, however, revealed that juvenile offending shifted to noncurfew hours (Urban, 2005). Furthermore, the enforcement of this curfew law by New Orleans police was difficult, because curfew violations often occurred outside of a police presence. If anything, the curfew law tended to induce rebelliousness among those youth affected by the law. The research indicates that curfew laws have not been an especially effective deterrent to status offending or delinquency generally (Adams, 2003; Urban, 2005). Nonetheless, in the summer of 2011, the Mayor of Philadelphia imposed a temporary 9:00 P.M. curfew on Friday and Saturday nights in specific geographical areas to prevent flash mobs, who had attacked some residents, from congregating in the city (CNN Wire Staff, 2011).

Juvenile and Criminal Court Interest in Status Offenders

Among status offenders, juvenile courts are most interested in chronic or persistent offenders, such as those who habitually appear before juvenile court judges (Hill et al., 2007). Some research suggests that greater contact with juvenile courts can result in youth acquiring labels or stigmas as either delinquents or deviants (Feiring, Miller-Johnson, and Cleland, 2007). Therefore, diversion of juvenile offenders from the juvenile justice system has been advocated and recommended to minimize stigmatization.

One increasingly popular strategy is to remove certain types of offenses from the jurisdiction of juvenile court judges (Trulson, Marquart, and Mullings, 2005). Because status offenses are less serious than juvenile delinquency cases, many state legislatures have pushed for the removal of status offenses from juvenile court jurisdiction. The removal of status offenders from the discretionary power of juvenile courts is, in part, an initiative based on the deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO).

The Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenses (DSO)

The JJPDA of 1974

Congress enacted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974 in response to a national concern about growing juvenile delinquency and youth crime (Bjerk, 2007). This Act authorized establishment of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), which is extremely helpful and influential in funding research and disseminating data and information about juvenile offending and prevention. The Act had two main provisions: (1) to remove juveniles who were involved in status offenses from secure detention or juvenile correctional facilities within two years of the legislation and (2) to make certain that youth were not held in facilities where they would have contact with adults convicted of a crime (OJJDP, n.d.). This mandate became known as the deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO). Although state participation was voluntary, funding for state initiatives was tied to state compliance with the legislation (Schwartz, 1989).

Changes and Modifications in the JJDPA

Throughout its history, the JJDPA has been reviewed and amended by Congress. In 1977, Congress increased and expanded its earlier initiatives in the deinstitutionalization of status offenders and its restrictions on sight and sound separation for juvenile offenders in adult institutions (OJJDP, n.d.). In 1980, Congress recommended that states refrain from detaining juveniles in jails or adult lockups. These requirements were enhanced in the 1984 amendments to the legislation.

In 1988, Congress also directed that states examine their secure confinement policies relating to minority juveniles and determine reasons—and justification—for the disproportionately high rate of minority confinement. The disproportionate minority confinement (DMC) requirement prompted states to investigate why minority youth were incarcerated at a higher rate and to develop strategies to address the imbalance. When Congress reauthorized the legislation in 1992, there was a focus on girls in the system, and states were required to examine existing programs for girls and make certain that the programs were specific to their needs. States also were to ascertain that each youth was treated equally (Chesney-Lind and Irwin, 2006).

The 2002 revisions to the Act expanded DMC to include all parts of the juvenile justice process. Today, DMC refers to disproportionate minority contact (Snyder and Sickmund, 2006). Subsequent amendments and authorizations of the JJDPA have occurred since it was enacted, and Congress is currently considering the proposed reauthorization of the legislation.

For approximately 20 years, Congress has directed that any participating state would have up to 25 percent of its formula grant money withheld to the extent that the state was not in compliance with each of the JJDPA mandates. Thus, state compliance with the provisions of the JJDPA was encouraged by providing grants-in-aid to jurisdictions wanting to improve their juvenile justice systems and facilities. Overall, states have endeavored to comply with the JJDPA mandate throughout their juvenile justice systems, and the Act has served as a significant catalyst for reform initiatives.

DSO Defined

The best definition of DSO is the removal of status offenders from juvenile secure institutions. Deinstitutionalization of youth from training schools, reform schools, and other secure juvenile facilities was first stipulated by Congress.


Deinstitutionalization refers to the removal of status offenders from secure juvenile institutions, such as state industrial or training schools. Before the JJDPA of 1974, states incarcerated both status and delinquent offenders together in reform schools or industrial schools (Champion, 2008a). Should truants, curfew violators, runaways, and difficult-to-control children be placed in secure facilities together with adjudicated juvenile burglars, thieves, robbers, arsonists, and other violent and property felony offenders? Clearly, substantial differences exist between status offenders and delinquent offenders.

Congress determined that requiring status offenders to live and interact with delinquents in secure confinement, especially for prolonged periods of time, is detrimental to status offenders and inconsistent with the mission of the juvenile court. The exposure of status offenders to the criminogenic influence of, and close association with, serious delinquents adversely affects the social and psychological well-being of status offenders. The damage to a status offender’s self-concept and self-esteem, coupled with the further immersion into the system, was perceived as problematic (Champion, 2008a).

Subsequently, states have implemented deinstitutionalization policies for status offenders. To expedite the removal of status offenders from secure juvenile facilities, the federal government made available substantial sums of money for establishing alternative social services. Overwhelmingly, states have complied with the regulations and successfully accessed the federal money allocated.

Under certain conditions, however, states may incarcerate status offenders who are under some form of probationary supervision. For instance, a Texas juvenile, E.D., was on probation for a status offense (In re E.D., 2004). During the term of E.D.’s probation, she violated one or more of the conditions of probation. The juvenile court elected to confine E.D. to an institution for a period of time as a sanction for the probation violation. E.D. appealed, contending that as a status offender, she should not be placed in a secure facility. The Court of Appeals in Texas disagreed and held that the juvenile court judge had broad discretionary powers to determine E.D.’s disposition, even including placement in a secure facility. The appellate court noted that secure placement of a status offender is warranted whenever the juvenile probation department has (1) reviewed the behavior of the youth and the circumstances under which the juvenile was brought before the court, (2) determined the reasons for the behavior that caused the youth to be brought before the court, and (3) determined that all dispositions, including treatment, other than placement in a secure detention facility or secure correctional facility have been exhausted or are clearly inappropriate.

The juvenile court judge set forth an order that (1) it is in the child’s best interests to be placed outside of her home, (2) reasonable efforts were made to prevent or eliminate the need for the child’s removal from her home, and (3) the child, in her home, could not be provided the quality of care and support that she needs to meet the conditions of probation. There was no suggestion in the record that the judge failed to comply with these three major requirements. Thus, this ruling suggests that despite the deinstitutionalization initiative, status offenders may be incarcerated if they violate court orders while on probation.

Diverting Dependent and Neglected Children to Social Services

A different application of DSO deals with dependent and neglected children. While the juvenile court continues to exercise jurisdiction over dependent and neglected youth, programs have been established to receive referrals of these children directly from law enforcement officers, schools, parents, or even the youth. These diversion programs provide crisis intervention services for youth, and their aim is to eventually return juveniles to their homes. However, more serious offenders may need services provided by shelter homes, group homes, or even foster homes (Sullivan, Veysey, et al., 2007). Collaborative community programs have been established to address this need.

Potential Outcomes of DSO

There are three potential outcomes of the DSO:

1. The number of status offenders in secure confinement, especially in local facilities, may be reduced. Greater numbers of jurisdictions are adopting deinstitutionalization policies, so the actual number of institutionalized status offenders should decrease.

2. Net-widening, or bringing youth into the juvenile justice system who would not have been involved in the system previously, may swell. Some state jurisdictions may have increased the number of status offenders in the juvenile justice system following DSO. Previously, status offenders in those states would have been handled informally. When specific community programs were established for status offenders, however, the net widened, and youthful offenders were eligible to be placed in programs that offered specialized social services. The result is that more youth can come into contact with the system.

3. Relabeling, or defining youth as delinquent or emotionally disturbed who in the past would have been defined and processed as status offenders, may occur in certain jurisdictions following DSO. For instance, police officers in some jurisdictions might label juvenile curfew violators or loiterers as larceny or burglary suspects and detain these youth. In brief, by attaching a new or different label to the behavior, youth can be brought into the juvenile justice system.

Based upon the last 38 years, DSO has clearly become not just widespread but also the prevailing juvenile justice policy. The DSO requirements stipulated that agencies and organizations contemplate new and innovative strategies to cope with youth with diverse needs, which has resulted in various programs to better serve status offenders. Greater cooperation and collaboration among the public, youth services, and community-based treatment programs facilitate developing the best program policies and practices. The implementation of DSO has helped foster these initiatives.

Some Important Distinctions between Juvenile and Criminal Courts

Some of the major differences between juvenile and criminal courts are indicated below. These general principles reflect most jurisdictions in the United States.

1. Juvenile courts are civil proceedings designed for juveniles, whereas criminal courts are proceedings designed to try adults charged with crimes. In criminal courts, adults are the focus of criminal court actions, although some juveniles may be tried as adults in these same courts. The civil–criminal distinction is important, because an adjudication of a juvenile court case does not result in a criminal record for the juvenile offender. In criminal courts, either a judge or a jury finds a defendant guilty or not guilty. In the case of guilty verdicts, offenders are convicted and acquire criminal records. These convictions follow offenders for the rest of their lives. However, when juveniles are found to be involved in delinquent behavior by juvenile courts, states can authorize procedures to seal or expunge juvenile court adjudications once the youth reaches adulthood or the age of majority.

2. Juvenile proceedings are more informal, and criminal proceedings are more formal. Attempts are made in many juvenile courts to avoid the prescribed aspects that characterize criminal proceedings. Juvenile court judges frequently address juveniles directly and casually, and proceedings are sometimes conducted in the judge’s chambers rather than a courtroom. Despite attempts by juvenile courts to minimize formal proceedings, juvenile court procedures in recent years have become increasingly formalized. At least in some jurisdictions, it may even be difficult to distinguish criminal courts from juvenile courts in terms of their formality.

3. In 30 states (including the District of Columbia), juveniles are not entitled to a trial by jury; in 10 states, juveniles have a constitutional right to a jury trial; and in 11 states, youth can be granted a jury trial under specific circumstances (Szymanksi, 2002). In all criminal proceedings, defendants are entitled to a trial by jury if the crime or crimes they are accused of committing carry a possibility of incarceration for more than six months. Judicial approval is required to hold a jury trial for juveniles in some jurisdictions. This is one more manifestation of the legacy of the parens patriae doctrine in contemporary juvenile courts. Eleven states have legislatively mandated jury trials for juveniles in juvenile courts if they are charged with certain types of offenses, are above a specified age, may be sentenced to an adult facility, and request a jury trial (Szymanksi, 2002, p.1).

4. Juvenile court and criminal court are adversarial proceedings. Juveniles may or may not wish to retain or be represented by counsel (In re Gault, 1967). In a juvenile court case, prosecutors allege various infractions or law violations by the juveniles, and these charges can then be refuted by juveniles or their counsel. If juveniles are represented by counsel, defense attorneys are permitted to offer a defense to the allegations. Criminal courts are obligated to provide counsel for anyone charged with a crime if the defendant cannot afford to retain his or her own counsel and could be sentenced to a term of incarceration (Argersinger v. Hamlin, 1972). Every state has provisions for providing defense attorneys to indigent juveniles who are to be adjudicated in juvenile court. However, a recent review of state procedures suggests that not all youth receive the assistance of effective counsel (Ross, 2011).

5. Criminal courts are courts of record, whereas transcripts of juvenile proceedings are made only if the state law authorizes them. Court reporters record all testimony presented in most criminal courts. State criminal trial courts are courts of record, where either a tape-recorded transcript of the proceedings is maintained or a written record is kept. Thus, if trial court verdicts are appealed by the prosecution or defense, transcripts of these proceedings can be presented by either side as evidence of errors committed by the judge or other violations of due process rights. Juvenile courts, however, are not courts of record. Therefore, in any given juvenile proceeding, whether a juvenile court judge will ask for a court reporter to transcribe the adjudicatory proceedings depends on the specific jurisdiction. One factor that inhibits juvenile courts from being courts of record is the expense of hiring court reporters for this work. Furthermore, the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that juvenile courts are not obligated to be courts of record (In re Gault, 1967). Nonetheless, in some jurisdictions, juvenile court judges may have access to a court reporter to transcribe or record all court matters.

6. The standard of proof used for determining one’s guilt in criminal proceedings is beyond a reasonable doubt. The less rigorous civil standard of preponderance of the evidence is used in some juvenile court cases. However, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that if any juvenile is in jeopardy of losing his or her liberty as the result of a delinquency adjudication by a juvenile court judge, then the evidentiary standard must be the criminal court standard of beyond a reasonable doubt (In re Winship, 1970). The Court’s decision dealt with youth who could be incarcerated for any period of time, whether for one day, one month, one year, or longer. Thus, juveniles in juvenile court who confront the possible punishment of confinement in a juvenile facility are entitled to the evidentiary standard of beyond a reasonable doubt in determining their involvement in the act. Juvenile court judges apply this standard when adjudicating a juvenile’s case and the loss of liberty is a possibility.

7. The range of penalties juvenile court judges may impose is limited, whereas in most criminal courts, the range of penalties may include life-without-parole sentences or even the death penalty. The jurisdiction of juvenile court judges also typically ends when the juvenile reaches adulthood. Some exceptions are that juvenile courts may retain jurisdiction over mentally ill youthful offenders indefinitely after they reach adulthood. In California, for instance, the Department of the Youth Authority supervises youthful offenders ranging in age from 11 to 25.

The purpose of this comparison is to illustrate that criminal court actions are more serious and have harsher long-term consequences for offenders compared with juvenile court proceedings. Juvenile courts continue to be guided by a strong rehabilitative orientation in most jurisdictions, where the most frequently used sanction is probation. In 2007, probation was used in approximately 56 percent of the cases in which a juvenile was adjudicated delinquent (Livsey, 2010, p. 1). Criminal courts also use probation as a sanction in about 60 percent of all criminal cases, and in 2009, about 4.2 million adult offenders were on probation (Glaze, 2010). Although juvenile courts may be utilizing more punitive sanctions, many youth continue to receive treatment-oriented punishments rather than incarceration in secure juvenile facilities. Secure confinement is viewed by most juvenile court judges as a last resort, and this disposition is reserved for only the most serious youthful offenders (LaMade, 2008).

An Overview of the Juvenile Justice System

The Ambiguity of Adolescence and Adulthood

Police have broad discretionary powers in their encounters with the public and in dealing with street crime, and police handle a large number of youth informally. However, police arrests and detentions of juveniles in local facilities remain the primary way that a juvenile enters the juvenile justice system.

Some juveniles are clearly children. It is difficult to find youth under 13 who physically appear to be 18 or older. Yet, nearly 10 percent of all juveniles held for brief periods in adult jails each year are 13 or younger (OJJDP, 2007). For juveniles 14 to 17 years of age, visual determination of one’s juvenile or nonjuvenile status is increasingly difficult. This might explain why police officers initially—and mistakenly—may take youthful offenders to jails for identification and questioning.

Other ways that juveniles can enter the juvenile justice system include referrals from or complaints by parents, neighbors, victims, and others (e.g., social work staff or probation officers) unrelated to law enforcement. Dependent or neglected children may be reported to police initially, and in investigating these complaints, police officers may take youth into custody until arrangements for their care can be made. Alternatively, police officers may apprehend youth for alleged crimes.

Being Taken into Custody

Being taken into custody is another term for arrest. Rarely are dependent or neglected youth taken into custody, but police might apprehend a runaway or missing youth and then hold him or her until the parent or guardian is notified (Armour and Haynie, 2007). Youth on the streets after curfew may also be taken into custody by police.

When youth are taken into police custody, it generally means that they are suspected of delinquent behavior. Formal charges may be filed against them once it is established which court has jurisdiction in their cases. Police may determine that the juvenile court has jurisdiction, depending on the age or youthfulness of the offender. Conversely, the prosecutor and/or judge may decide that the criminal court has jurisdiction and the youthful offender should be charged as an adult.

Juveniles in Jails

In 2009, approximately 7,200 juveniles under the age of 18 were being held in jails (Minton, 2010). About 80 percent of these juveniles were being held as adults. This represents roughly one percent of all inmates held in jails for 2009, and it does not reflect the total number of juveniles who are brought to jail annually after they have been arrested by police. Many youth are held for short periods of time (e.g., two or three hours) even though they have not been specifically charged with an offense. Legislators in Illinois have enacted a statute preventing police officers from detaining juveniles in adult jails for more than six hours (Arya, 2011). Such laws reflect the jail removal initiative, in which states are encouraged to avoid holding juveniles in adult jails, even for short periods.

The Illinois policy preventing the police from detaining juveniles in jails except for limited periods is consistent with a major provision of the JJDPA of 1974. Although the JJDPA is not binding on any state, it does advise law enforcement officials to treat juveniles differently from adult offenders if juveniles are taken to jails for brief periods. For instance, the JJDPA recommends that youth be separated in jails by sight and sound from adult offenders. Furthermore, they should be held in nonsecure areas of jails for periods not exceeding six hours and should not be restrained in any way with handcuffs or other devices while detained. Their detention should only be as long as is necessary to identify them and reunite them with their parents, guardians, or a responsible adult from a public youth agency or family services.


Similar to adults, teens are arrested, handcuffed, and taken into custody.

(Courtesy of Mark C. Ide)

Even more serious delinquent offenders brought to jail to be detained should be processed according to JJDPA recommendations. Sight and sound separation from adult offenders is encouraged, although juveniles alleged to have committed delinquent offenses are subject to more restrictive detention provisions. The general intent of this aspect of the JJDPA is to minimize the adverse effects of labeling and victimization that might occur if juveniles are treated like adult offenders. Another factor is the recognition that most of these offenders’ cases will eventually be handled by the juvenile justice system. Any attributions of criminality arising from how juveniles are treated while they are in adult jails are considered to be incompatible with the rehabilitative ideals of the juvenile justice system and the outcomes or consequences ultimately experienced by most juvenile offenders. Thus, some of the JJDPA goals are to prevent juveniles from being influenced, psychologically or physically, by adults through jail contact, to prevent their victimization, and to insulate them from defining themselves as criminals, which might occur through processing.

Despite new laws designed to minimize or eliminate holding juveniles in adult jails or lockups, even for short periods of time, juveniles continue to be held in jails. Their detention may be related to a number of factors. For example, juveniles can appear to be older to police officers than they really are. They may present false IDs or even no IDs, offer fictitious names when questioned, or refuse to provide police with any information about their true identities. It takes time to determine who the youth are and which responsible adult or guardian should be contacted. Some runaways who police apprehend are from different states, and planning may be required for their parents or guardians to reunite with them. Juveniles can also be aggressive, assaultive, and obviously dangerous. They are sometimes confined or restrained, if only to protect others. Some youth are even suicidal and need temporary protection.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that preventive detention of juveniles for brief periods can be used without violating their constitutional rights, especially for those offenders who pose a danger to themselves or others (Schall v. Martin, 1984). In that particular case, a juvenile, Gregory Martin, was detained at the police department’s request for serious charges. Gregory refused to give his name or other identification and was perceived to be dangerous, either to himself or to others. His preventive detention was upheld by the Supreme Court as not violating his constitutional right to due process. Before this ruling, however, many states had similar laws that permitted pretrial and preventive detention of both juvenile and adult suspects. Although pretrial detention presupposes a forthcoming trial of those detained and preventive detention does not, both terms are often used interchangeably—or even combined, as in the term preventive pretrial detention (Brookbanks, 2002).


Figure 1.1 is a diagram of the juvenile justice system. Although each jurisdiction in the United States has its own methods for processing juvenile offenders, Figure 1.1 encompasses most of these stages. As shown on this diagram, a majority of juvenile encounters with the juvenile justice system are through referrals from police officers. Referrals are notifications made to juvenile court authorities that a juvenile requires the court’s attention. Referrals can be made by various individuals, including concerned parents, school principals, teachers, neighbors, truant officers, and social service providers. However, most referrals to juvenile courts are made by law enforcement officers. In 2007, police referrals accounted for approximately 83 percent of the delinquency cases, but some variation occurs in offense categories. For example, police referrals occurred in over 93 percent of cases involving drug law violations or property offenses (Puzzanchera, Adams, and Sickmund, 2010, p. 31). Referrals may be made for runaways; truants; curfew violators; unmanageable, unsupervised, or incorrigible children; children with drug or alcohol problems; or any youth suspected of committing a crime (Kuntsche et al., 2007).

Figure 1.1 Diagram of the Juvenile Justice System


Each jurisdiction throughout the United States has its own policies relating to how referrals are handled. In Figure 1.1, following an investigation by a police officer, juveniles are counseled and released to parents; referred to community resources; cited and referred to juvenile intake, followed by a subsequent release to parents; or transported to juvenile detention or shelter care to be held. Each of these actions is the result of police discretion. The discretionary action of police officers who take youth into custody for any reason is governed by what the officers observed. If a youth has been loitering, especially in cities with curfew laws for juveniles, the discretion of police officers might be to counsel the youth and release him or her to the parents without further action. If the youth violated liquor laws or committed some minor infraction, he or she may be cited by police and referred to a juvenile probation officer for further processing. Most youth are returned to the custody of their parents or guardians. However, some youth are apprehended while committing serious crimes. If that occurs, police officers typically transport the youth to a juvenile detention center or shelter to await further action by juvenile justice system personnel.

In New Mexico, for example, whenever a juvenile is referred to the juvenile justice system for any offense, the referral is first screened by the Juvenile Probation/ Parole Office. Juvenile probation/parole officers (JPPOs) are assigned to initially review a police report and file. This function is performed, in part, to determine the accuracy of the report and if the information is correct. If the information is accurate, an intake process will commence, in which the youth undergoes further screening by a JJPO assigned to the case by a supervisor (New Mexico Juvenile Justice Division, 2002).

Once a referral has been made to the Juvenile Probation/Parole Office, a decision is made whether to file a petition or to handle the case informally. About 56 percent of all delinquency cases are handled formally (Puzzanchera, Adams, and Sickmund, 2010, p. 37). A petition is an official document filed in juvenile court on the juvenile’s behalf that specifies the reasons for the youth’s court appearance. These documents assert that juveniles fit within the jurisdictional categories of dependent or neglected, status offender, or delinquent, and the reasons for such assertions are usually provided. Filing a petition formally places the juvenile before the juvenile court judge. However, juveniles may come before juvenile court judges in less formal ways. About 44 percent of the cases brought before the juvenile court each year are nonpetitioned cases (Puzzanchera, Adams, and Sickmund, 2010, p. 37).

When individual cases are handled informally, JPPOs in jurisdictions in New Mexico have several options. Whenever youth are determined to require special care, are neglected or dependent, or are otherwise unsupervised by adults or guardians, JPPOs may refer them to a Juvenile Early Intervention Program (JEIP). The JEIP is a highly structured program for at-risk, nonadjudicated youth. Other states have similar programs designed to help youth who might need specific services.

Depending upon the jurisdiction, however, the majority of alleged juvenile delinquents will be advanced further into the juvenile justice system. Some status offenders, especially recidivists, will also progress through the system. Alternatively youth may be held in juvenile detention facilities temporarily to await further action. Other youth may be released to their parent’s custody, but these juveniles may be required to reappear later for further court action. Most of these youth will subsequently be interviewed by an intake officer in a proceeding known as intake. Figure 1.2 shows an example of a juvenile court referral form used by an intake officer.

Figure 1.2 Juvenile Court Referral Form Source: Prepared by authors.



Intake varies among jurisdictions. Intake is a screening procedure usually conducted by a juvenile probation officer and during which several recommendations can be made. Some jurisdictions conduct intake hearings or intake screenings, where information and explanations are solicited from relevant individuals, such as police, parents, neighbors, or victims. In other jurisdictions, intake proceedings are quite informal, usually consisting of a dialogue between the juvenile and the intake officer. These are important proceedings, regardless of their degree of formality. Intake is a major screening stage in the juvenile justice process, where further action against juveniles may be contemplated or required. Intake officers can hear complaints against juveniles and informally resolve the less serious cases, or they can be juvenile probation officers who perform intake as a special assignment. Also, juvenile probation officers may perform diverse functions, including intake, enforcement of truancy statutes, and juvenile placements (Champion, 2008a).

Intake officers also consider the youth and his or her attitude, demeanor, age, seriousness of offense, and a host of other factors. Has the juvenile had frequent prior contact with the juvenile justice system? If the offenses alleged are serious, what evidence exists against the offender? Should the offender be referred to social service agencies or for psychological counseling, receive vocational counseling and guidance, acquire educational or technical training and skills, be issued a verbal reprimand, be placed on some type of diversionary status, or be returned to parental custody? Interviews with parents are conducted as a part of an intake officer’s information gathering. Although intake is supposed to be an informal proceeding, it is nevertheless an important stage in juvenile processing. The intake officer often acts in an advisory capacity, because he or she is the first juvenile court contact children and their parents will have following an arrest or being taken into custody. The youth and the parents have a right to know the charge(s). It is indicated to the youth and the parents that the intake hearing is a preliminary inquiry and not a fact-finding session to determine one’s guilt, and the intake officer advises the youth that statements made by the child and/or parents may be used in court if such action is warranted.

In most jurisdictions, depending upon the discretion of intake officers, intake results in one of five actions: (1) dismiss the case, with or without a verbal or written reprimand; (2) remand the youth to the custody of the parents; (3) remand the youth to the custody of the parents, but with provisions for or referrals to counseling or special services; (4) place the youth on informal probation or supervision; or (5) refer the youth to the juvenile prosecutor for further action and possible filing of a delinquency petition (Champion and Mays, 1991). In 2007, more than half the cases referred to the juvenile court for delinquency resulted in a formal petition being filed (Knoll and Sickmund, 2010).


Police officers explain drugs, alcohol, and tobacco and their effects to classes of students in schools.

(Anne Vega/Merrill Education)

Theoretically, at least, only the most serious juveniles will be referred to detention to await a subsequent juvenile court appearance. For a youth to be detained while awaiting a juvenile court appearance, a detention hearing must be conducted. Juveniles considered for detention generally are determined to be a danger to the community, are believed likely to be harmed if released, or are perceived as likely to flee the jurisdiction to avoid prosecution in juvenile court. Other youth may be released to the custody of their parents, sometimes with a referral to community service organizations; usually, these community resources are intended to meet the specific needs of particular juvenile offenders. For serious cases, a petition is filed with the juvenile court. The juvenile court prosecutor further screens these petitions and decides which ones merit an appearance before the juvenile court judge. In Alaska, for example, a petition for adjudication of delinquency is used to bring delinquency cases before the juvenile court.

Other petitions may allege status offending, such as truancy, runaway behavior, curfew violation, or violation of drug or liquor laws (McNamara, 2008b). Not all petitions result in formal action by a juvenile court prosecutor. Like prosecutors in criminal courts, juvenile court prosecutors prioritize which cases they will pursue. This case ranking depends upon a number of factors, including the seriousness of the alleged offense, the volume of petitions filed, the time estimated for the juvenile court judge to hear and act on these petitions, and the sufficiency of evidence supporting these petitions (Backstrom and Walker, 2006). As shown in Figure 1.3, however, there has been a more formal response to youthful offending in the last two decades, and more delinquency cases referred to the juvenile court result in a formal petition than those that are handled informally.

Figure 1.3 Number of Delinquency Cases Formally Processed: 1989–2007


Source: Charles Puzzanchera, Benjamin Adams, and Melissa Sickmund (2010). Juvenile Court Statistics 2006–2007. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Alternative Prosecutorial Actions

Cases referred to juvenile prosecutors for further action tend to be more serious. Exceptions might include those youth who are chronic offenders or technical probation violators and nonviolent property offenders (e.g., status offenders, vandalism, petty theft, or public order offenders).

Juvenile court prosecutors have broad discretion. They may cease prosecutions against alleged offenders or reduce the charges in the petition from felonies to misdemeanors or from misdemeanors to status offenses. In some instances, prosecutors may divert some of the more serious juvenile cases for processing by criminal courts. The least serious cases are disposed of informally. Prosecutors either file petitions or act on petitions filed by others, such as intake officers, the police, school officials, or interested family and citizens (LaMade, 2008).


Police encounters with juveniles on city streets sometimes lead to arrests and juvenile processing.

(© A. Ramey / PhotoEdit)

Adjudicatory Proceedings

Jurisdictions vary considerably concerning juvenile court proceedings. In some states, juvenile courts appear to be emulating criminal courts. The physical features of criminal courts are present, including the judge’s bench, tables for the prosecution and defense, and a witness stand. Further, evidence suggests that courts are currently holding juveniles more accountable for their actions (LaMade, 2008).

Besides the more formal atmosphere of juvenile courts, the procedure is becoming increasingly adversarial. The prosecutor represents the state, and the youth is entitled to be represented by defense counsel. However, research shows that only about 50 percent of the juvenile offenders in delinquency proceedings have the assistance of counsel (Bishop, 2010; LaMade, 2008). Typically, juvenile court judges have discretion in determining how court proceedings are conducted. Juvenile defendants alleged to have committed various offenses may or may not be entitled to a jury. In 2007, only 11 states provided jury trials for juveniles in juvenile courts, and these jury trials were restricted to a narrow list of serious offenses.

After hearing the evidence presented by both sides in any juvenile proceeding, the judge decides or adjudicates the matter in an adjudication hearing, sometimes called an adjudicatory hearing. Adjudication is a judgment or action on the petition filed with the court. If the petition alleges that the youth is a delinquent, the judge determines whether this is so. If the petition alleges that the juvenile involved is dependent, neglected, or otherwise in need of care by agencies or others, the judge decides the matter. If the adjudicatory hearing fails to yield facts supporting the petition filed, the case is dismissed, and the youth exits the juvenile justice system. If, however, the adjudicatory hearing supports the allegations in the petition, the judge must dispose of the juvenile’s case according to a range of sanctions (Champion and Mays, 1991).

Juvenile Dispositions

Disposing of a juvenile’s case is the equivalent of sentencing adult offenders. When adult offenders are convicted of crimes, they are sentenced. When juveniles are adjudicated delinquent, the judge makes a disposition. At least 12 different dispositions or sanctions are available to juvenile court judges if the facts alleged in petitions are upheld (Jarjoura et al., 2008). These dispositions are (1) nominal, (2) conditional, or (3) custodial options.


Juvenile offenders have the right to testify on court in their defense.

(© Design Pics Inc. / Alamy)

Nominal Dispositions

Nominal dispositions are either verbal warnings or reprimands and are the least punitive dispositional options. The nature of such verbal warnings or reprimands is a matter of judicial discretion. The youth is released to the custody of the parents or legal guardians, and this completes the juvenile court action (Foley, 2008). Nominal dispositions are most often utilized for low-risk, first offenders who may be considered the least likely to recidivate and commit new offenses (Abbott-Chapman, Denholm, and Wyld, 2007). The emphasis of nominal dispositions is on rehabilitation and fostering a continuing, positive, reintegrative relationship between the juvenile and his or her community (Ross, 2008).

Conditional Dispositions

Most conditional dispositions involve probation, which is the most frequently imposed sanction. Youth are placed on probation and required to comply with certain conditions for a specified period lasting from several months to a couple of years. The nature of the conditions to be fulfilled depends on the specific needs of the offender and the offense committed. If youth have alcohol or drug dependencies, they may be required to undergo individual or group counseling and some type of therapy to cope with substance abuse (McMorris et al., 2007). Juvenile court judges impose probation as a disposition more than any other sanction (Puzzanchera, Adams, and Sickmund, 2010).

Property offenders may be required to make restitution to victims or to compensate the court in some way for the damage they have caused (Jarjoura et al., 2008). In a growing number of jurisdictions, restorative justice is practiced, in which offenders and their victims are brought together for the purpose of mediation. Youth learn to accept responsibility for what they have done, and their accountability is heightened (Swanson, 2005). Many jurisdictions have gravitated toward a more balanced approach in sanctioning youth, where the emphasis is upon restorative and victim-centered justice. The aim of balanced and restorative justice is to (1) promote public safety and the protection of the community, (2) heighten accountability of youth toward victims and the community for offenses committed, and (3) increase competency and improve character development to assist youth in becoming responsible and productive members of society (Champion and Mays, 1991).

Offenders with behavioral disorders may require more intensive supervision while on probation (Abatiello, 2005). Those considered to be high risks for recidivism may be required to undergo electronic monitoring and house arrest as part of their supervision by juvenile probation officers. These and similar strategies are part of the growing area of community corrections and intermediate punishments, in which greater emphasis is placed upon community reintegration and rehabilitation (Rivers, 2005). During the 1990s, a gradual intensification of punishments for juveniles, including probation dispositions, occurred (Wilkerson, 2005). This emphasis on punishment is a reflection of state legislatures’ tougher stance toward juveniles.

The terms and conditions of the disposition are outlined by the judge and probation staff. Obeying the law, attending school, maintaining employment, reporting to the probation officer, attending vocational training or education courses, appearing at subsequent court hearings, avoiding the use of drugs and alcohol, and refraining from possessing dangerous weapons are standard probation conditions. Furthermore, the judge may include other conditions, such as mandatory counseling or therapy, depending upon the particular needs exhibited by the offender.

In terms of formal dispositions for delinquent youth, judges use probation most often for property offenses. In 2007, 35 percent of youth who were adjudicated delinquent for a property offense were placed on probation. However, from 1985 to 2007, the use of probation actually increased for the three other delinquent offense categories (person offenses, drug offenses, and public order offenses), and it decreased for property offenses (Puzzanchera, Adams, and Sickmund, 2010).

Custodial Dispositions

Custodial dispositions are classified according to nonsecure custody or nonsecure confinement and secure custody or secure confinement. Nonsecure custody consists of placing juveniles in shelter care, foster homes, group homes, camps, or ranches. These are short-term options, and they are often designed to lead to more permanent placement arrangements for juveniles. Juveniles have freedom of movement, and they can generally participate in school and other activities. It is assumed that if they are in the care of others in foster homes or shelters, curfews will be implicitly (if not explicitly) enforced (McNamara, 2008b).

Placement in a secure custodial environment is considered by most juvenile court judges as the last resort for serious offenders. Some of the reasons for this include the concern that youth will become more criminalized as a result of living with other delinquents, overcrowding in secure juvenile facilities, a general reluctance among judges to incarcerate youth because of adverse labeling effects, and the potential effectiveness of certain intermediate punishments through community-service agencies. Fewer than 10 percent of all juveniles processed by juvenile courts annually are subsequently placed in either nonsecure or secure facilities (LaMade, 2008).

Juvenile Corrections

Since 2000, the number of youth in residential facilities (both public and private) has been declining, and in 2008, as Figure 1.4 shows, fewer than 81,000 juveniles were in residential correctional programs (Sickmund, 2010). Juvenile residential facilities range from small, temporary facilities to large, long-term public facilities, and states vary in their use of residential placement. For example, Sickmund (2010) reported that six states account for 46 percent of the youth in residential facilities.

Figure 1.4 Number of Youth in Residential Placement: 1997–2008


Source: Melissa Sickmund (2010). Juveniles in Residential Placement, 1997–2008. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Juvenile Probation

Juveniles adjudicated delinquent may be placed on probation or in secure confinement, depending upon the seriousness of the misconduct, the juvenile court judge, and the recommendations of and evaluations by the probation staff. Depending upon juvenile probation officer caseloads in various jurisdictions, probation may in some cases be as intense as intensive supervised probation for adults and in other cases considerably less restrictive. Placement in different types of probationary programs is dependent upon how the youth is classified. However, juvenile court judges have not consistently applied legal variables in their decision making about juvenile secure placements. More rational legal criteria for secure confinement decision making have been recommended (Sullivan, Veysey, et al., 2007).

Intensive as well as regular probation may involve restitution to victims and/or community service. In 2007, over 560,000 juveniles were placed on probation in various state jurisdictions (Livsey, 2010). Juveniles may be placed in community-based residential programs or participate in various therapies and treatments or training as part of their probation conditions (Champion and Mays, 2001).

Confinement in state industrial schools is the juvenile equivalent of incarceration in a state prison for adults. This type of confinement is considered to be hard time for many juveniles. The California Youth Authority operates various facilities to house juvenile offenders in secure confinement. Lengths of commitment vary for offenders, depending upon the seriousness of their adjudication offenses (OJJDP, 2007). However, recent research suggests that long-term confinement in juvenile institutions does not reduce recidivism (Mulvey, 2011).

Juvenile Aftercare

When juveniles have completed a specified period of time in a residential setting, they usually are considered for release by a juvenile paroling authority. If selected, the youth undergo a period of supervision under an appropriate state or community agency. In the adult system, this is referred to as parole; in the juvenile system, it is called aftercare. In 2006, there were 95,000 juveniles on aftercare in various state jurisdictions (American Correctional Association, 2007).


The juvenile justice system is an integrated network of agencies, institutions, and organizations that process juvenile offenders. Its essential components are law enforcement, prosecution and the courts, community and institutional corrections, and aftercare. Considerable diversity exists among states in the structure and operations of the juvenile justice system. State statutes stipulate the maximum age limits for youth used by juvenile courts. The most common maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction is 17, although maximum age limits of 18, 16, and 15 are found in some states. Lower age limits also vary, with some juvenile courts having no lower age limits. Children under age seven are generally considered to be incapable of formulating criminal intent and are treated by one or more community agencies rather than juvenile courts.

Delinquency is any act committed by a juvenile that would be a crime if committed by an adult. Any criminal act committed by someone who has not reached the age of majority would also define delinquency. A status offense is any act committed by a juvenile that would not be a crime if committed by an adult. Common status offenses include runaway behavior, curfew violation, incorrigibility, and truancy. Several policies have been established to differentiate between status and delinquent offenders. The JJDPA of 1974 was designed to remove status offenders from secure institutions where more hard-core delinquent offenders might be housed. This was called the DSO. The general meaning of DSO is the deinstitutionalization of status offenders from institutions, diverting dependent and neglected children to social services, and divestiture of jurisdiction by juvenile courts over status offenders.

The traditional orientation of juvenile courts has been characterized by the philosophy of parens patriae. This perspective vests juvenile courts with individualized sanctioning powers intended to treat rather than punish youth. During the last 40 years, juvenile courts have become increasingly adversarial, resembling criminal courts. Presently, juvenile courts are due process bodies, influenced significantly by the get-tough movement that espouses more punishment-centered sanctions for juveniles. Despite this get-tough stance, juvenile court judges exhibit philosophical principles that guide their decision making about youth. Judges attempt to balance the aims of due process and justice with individualized treatments and therapies intended to rehabilitate and reintegrate youthful offenders.

The juvenile justice system and the criminal justice system parallel one another in several respects. Juveniles suspected of committing delinquent acts are taken into custody or arrested. Youth are referred to juvenile court by police, school authorities, social service agencies, or parents. These referrals are made whenever juveniles are believed to have violated one or more laws. More than half of all juvenile cases are petitioned; a petition is a formal document seeking a hearing for the juvenile in a juvenile court. An adjudicatory hearing is a formal court proceeding much like a criminal trial. Judges usually impose dispositions on juveniles who have been adjudicated. These include nominal dispositions or verbal warnings, conditional dispositions or probation, and custodial dispositions, which may involve incarceration.

Various dispositions are available to juvenile court judges that parallel some of the punishments available for criminal offenders, including probation. Community-based sanctions include probation, intensive supervised probation, home confinement, electronic monitoring, community service, restitution, fines, day reporting programs, and/or placement in a halfway house. Other dispositions may include placement in a secure facility. Once juveniles have served a portion of their disposition in these facilities, they may be released under supervision or aftercare. Juvenile aftercare is much like adult parole in that it is community-based and conditional.

Key Terms

· juvenile justice system, 3

· criminal justice, 3

· law enforcement agencies, 3

· law enforcement, 3

· prosecution and the courts, 3

· juvenile offenders, 4

· jurisdiction, 4

· parens patriae, 5

· get-tough movement, 6

· juvenile delinquent, 7

· delinquent child, 7

· juvenile delinquency, 7

· status offenses, 10

· runaways, 10

· truants, 12

· truancy courts, 12

· curfew violators, 13

· stigmas, 14

· stigmatization, 14

· Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJPDA) of 1974, 14

· Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), 14

· deinstitutionalization of status offenses (DSO), 15

· disproportionate minority confinement (DMC), 15

· disproportionate minority contact, 16

· deinstitutionalization, 16

· dependent and neglected children, 17

· net-widening, 17

· relabeling, 17

· convictions, 18

· adversarial proceedings, 18

· courts of record, 19

· court reporters, 19

· standard of proof, 19

· beyond a reasonable doubt, 19

· preponderance of the evidence, 19

· taken into custody, 20

· jail removal initiative, 21

· jails, 22

· lockups, 22

· preventive detention, 22

· pretrial detention, 22

· preventive pretrial detention, 22

· referrals, 24

· petition, 24

· intake officer, 25

· intake, 25

· screening, 25

· intake hearings, 25

· intake screenings, 25

· adjudication hearing, 29

· adjudicatory hearing, 29

· adjudication, 29

· dispose, 30

· dispositions, 30

· nominal dispositions, 30

· conditional dispositions, 31

· restorative justice, 31

· custodial dispositions, 32

· nonsecure custody, 32

· nonsecure confinement, 32

· secure custody, 32

· secure confinement, 32

· hard time, 33

· aftercare, 33

Questions for Review

1. What are the principal components of the juvenile justice system? Why do some view juvenile justice as a process rather than a system?


2. Why is there a general lack of uniformity among juvenile courts in the United States?



3. What is the age range for juvenile courts in the United States? Which factors make it difficult to provide a consistent definition of this age range among states? Explain.



4. What is the doctrine of parens patriae? What are its origins? Does parens patriae continue to influence juvenile courts today? Why, or why not?



5. What is the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) of 1974? What are its implications for juveniles?



6. What is meant by DSO? What are some of its outcomes for juvenile offenders?



7. What is the current situation with youth in residential placement?



8. What are some major differences between juvenile and criminal courts?



9. What are dispositions? How do they resemble sentences for adult criminals? What are three types of dispositions? Define and give an example of each.



10. Distinguish between juvenile probation and aftercare. What is the difference between secure confinement and nonsecure confinement?



11. Are juvenile courts primarily treatment-centered or punishment-centered? What is the get-tough movement, and what are some reasons for its existence?


Internet Connections

ABA Juvenile Justice Committee


Administration for Children and Families


Child Protect: Children’s Advocacy Center


Children’s Defense Fund


National Center for Juvenile Justice


National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges


Office of Justice Programs



Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention


The Future of Children


Youth For Justice: Teaching Youth About the Law



The Juvenile Justice System. Delinquency, Processing, and the Law, Seventh Edition

Chapter 1: An Overview of Juvenile Justice in the United States

ISBN: 9780132764469 Authors: Dean John Champion, Alida V. Merlo, Peter J. Benekos

Copyright © Pearson Education (2013)


The History of Juvenile Justice and Origins of the Juvenile Court


(Courtesy of Dean John Champion)

Learning Objectives


· Outline the history and development of juvenile justice and juvenile courts.

· Identify the different methods by which juvenile crime data are gathered, categorized, measured, and reported.

· Summarize juvenile crime rates and trends.

· Describe the limitations and problems of measuring juvenile crime.

· Describe the factors that lead to career escalation and/or a transition to adult crime.

· Summarize juvenile victimization, including school violence.


In the early 1990s, the rising rate of juvenile violent crime produced a public panic that resulted in more punitive policies toward youthful offenders. The rate of arrest per 100,000 youth ages 10 to 17 in 1994 was 525, compared to a rate of 334 in 1980 (Figure 2.1). Media attention and get-tough legislative reactions raised serious doubts about the future of the juvenile justice system. With headlines such as “The Coming of the Super-Predators” (DiIulio, 1995) and “Old Enough to Do the Crime, Old Enough to Do the Time,” some questioned the need for a separate system for younger offenders (Feld, 1998, 1999). Should rehabilitation still be the mission of the juvenile court, or should this be abandoned in favor of a punishment? Should a separate system even be maintained for youth?

Figure 2.1 Juvenile Arrest Rate Trends


Source: Charles Puzzanchera (2009). Juvenile Arrests 2008. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. 5.

Research on public opinion indicates Americans believe that rehabilitation should be the purpose of the juvenile justice system and that a separate system should be maintained (Cullen et al., 1998; Piquero et al., 2010). As juvenile violence (as well as adult criminal violence) declined in the late 1990s, a more rational review of public policy, by both the public and those working in the system itself, reinforced the original intent and mission of the juvenile justice system. By 2008, the juvenile arrest rate for violent crime had decreased to 288 per 100,000 youth ages 10 to 17 (Figure 2.1), and the outlook for the juvenile court was more optimistic (Piquero et al., 2010).

Why is there a separate system of justice for juvenile offenders? What are the origins and goals of this specialty court for children and youth? This chapter will review the history of the juvenile justice system in the United States and explain the development of a separate system of justice for youth. In 1999, the first centennial of the juvenile court was celebrated, but the characteristics of the court have been transformed from its original policies and procedures. The formality of juvenile courts today did not begin to emerge until the 1960s and 1970s.

The historical antecedents of the juvenile justice system are rooted in England during the 16th century, when youthful offenders were under the jurisdiction of the king. Justice for youth was dispensed through political appointees known as chancellors. These persons made decisions about juveniles according to what they believed to be in the child’s best interests. When the American colonies were established, English influence over how youth were treated continued. Between the early 1600s and late 1800s, a gradual transformation occurred that influenced how youthful offenders were handled. Many of the events that shaped the contemporary system of juvenile justice and offender processing will be presented and described.

Two key cases, Ex parte Crouse (1839) and People ex rel. O’Connell v. Turner (1870), will be examined. These cases were influential in shaping policies about child welfare, guardianship, and punishments for various types of juvenile behaviors. During the 40-year interval following the Civil War, several philanthropists, religious groups, and political groups contributed to promoting important reforms. The child savers movement emerged, and houses of refuge were constructed and operated. Crucial legislation in different states was enacted, establishing both truancy laws and juvenile courts. Gradually, children gained greater recognition and were given special treatment, moving them well beyond their early conceptualization as chattel and their unfair and unilateral treatment in primitive children’s tribunals. These and other critical events will be described. Early juvenile courts were noted particularly for their paternalistic views toward youth through the doctrine of parens patriae and individualized decision making based on a youth’s best interests as determined by the courts.

How much delinquency and status offending are there in the United States? While there is a “dark figure” of delinquent offending (i.e., delinquency that is not known or not reported; also known as hidden delinquency), official and unofficial measures are used to identify the extent and frequency of youthful misbehaviors. Different data sources are used in tracking juvenile offending, including the Uniform Crime Reports, the National Crime Victimization Survey, the National Juvenile Court Data Archive, and The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics. These will be described and discussed. Additional sources include the National Youth Survey and the Monitoring the Future Survey. These national surveys will also be defined and described. An important source of unreported delinquency and status offense information is self-reports, or disclosures by juveniles to private researchers about the nature and extent of their offending. Some of the strengths and weaknesses of these different information sources, including self-reports, will be discussed as well.

As with adult crimes, juvenile crimes are classified as violent offenses and property offenses. Violent offenses include murder, rape, aggravated assault, and robbery. In recent years, several incidents of school violence have been reported by the media. Thus, school violence, patterns, and trends will also be reviewed. This chapter also describes youth who are considered to be at risk of becoming delinquent. Several risk factors, such as family instability, poor school adjustment, lower socioeconomic status, low self-control and self-esteem, and antisocial behavior will be described. In addition, some violent offending is gang related (George and Thomas, 2008). Juvenile gangs and gang activities often form along racial or ethnic lines, and some of their characteristics will be reviewed. While very few youth commit murder, this topic will be introduced as well.

One concern of criminologists is whether less-serious offenders, such as status offenders, progress to more serious offenses. This phenomenon is known as career escalation, and some authorities believe that less-serious juvenile offending, if not detected and corrected, will eventually lead to more serious offending. It is uncertain whether career escalation occurs for most juveniles who commit less-serious offenses. Career escalation and juvenile violence trends will be examined.

This chapter concludes with an examination of female juveniles and how their patterns of delinquency have changed in recent years. Female juvenile offenders will be profiled, and trends among female offending will be described. Female juveniles have increasingly become involved in gang activities, so juvenile female gang formation will be examined. Since more female juvenile offenders have come to the attention of police, myths and misconceptions about female juveniles have been perpetuated. These myths and misconceptions will be described.

The History of Juvenile Courts

Juvenile courts are a relatively recent American phenomenon. However, modern American juvenile courts have various, less-formal European antecedents. In biblical times, Roman law vested parents with almost exclusive responsibility for disciplining their offspring. Age was the crucial determinant of whether youth were subject to parental discipline or to the more severe penalties invoked for adult law violators. While the origin of this demarcation or cutting point is unknown, the age of seven was used in Roman times to separate infants from those older children who were accountable to the law for their actions (Congressional Research Service, 2007). During the Middle Ages, English common law established under the monarchy adhered to the same standard. In the United States, several state jurisdictions currently apply this distinction and consider that children below the age of seven are not accountable for criminal acts.

Under the laws of England during the 1500s, shires (counties) and other political subdivisions were organized to carry out the will of the king. Each shire had a reeve, or chief law enforcement officer. In later years, the term shire was combined with the term reeve (shire-reeve) to create the word sheriff, a term that is now applied to the chief law enforcement officer of most U.S. counties. While reeves enforced both criminal and civil laws and arrested law violators, other functionaries, called chancellors, acted on the king’s behalf and dispensed justice according to his wishes. These chancellors held court and settled disputes that included simple property trespass, property boundary disagreements, and assorted personal and property offenses, including public drunkenness, thievery, and vagrancy. The courts conducted by chancellors were known as chancery courts or courts of equity. Today, some jurisdictions in the United States, such as Tennessee, have chancery courts where property boundary disputes and contested wills may be adjudicated by chancellors. These courts have other jurisdiction as well, although they deal primarily with equity cases (e.g., breaches of contract, specific performance actions, and child custody cases).

No distinctions were made regarding age or gender when punishments were administered in England during the 1700s. Youthful offenders aged seven or older experienced the same harsh punishments imposed on adults. Stocks and pillories, whipping posts, branding, ducking stools, and other forms of corporal punishment were administered to juveniles as well as to adult offenders for many different types of crimes. In some instances, banishment was used as a way of punishing more serious offenders. Some of these offenders were transported to Pacific islands, which were owned by the British and converted into penal colonies. This was known as transportation. Many prisoners died in these colonies. The death penalty was also invoked frequently, often for petty crimes, and incarceration of offenders was particularly sordid. Women, men, and youth were confined together in jails for lengthy periods. No attempts were made to classify these offenders by gender or age, and all prisoners slept on hay loosely thrown on wooden floors.

Workhouses and Poor Laws

Eighteenth-century jails were patterned largely after workhouses that were common nearly two centuries earlier. In 1557, for example, Bridewell Workhouse was established in London. Although the manifest aim of such places was to punish offenders, Bridewell and other, similar facilities were created primarily to provide cheap labor to satisfy mercantile interests and demands. Interestingly, jailers and sheriffs profited greatly from leasing their inmates to various merchants to perform semiskilled and skilled labor. These same jailers claimed that the work performed by inmates for mercantile interests was largely therapeutic and rehabilitative, although in reality, the primary incentive for operating such houses was profit and personal gain. Exploitation of inmates for profit in these and other workhouses was perpetuated by jailers and sheriffs for many decades, and the general practice was accepted by an influential constituency of merchants and entrepreneurs.

At the time of the Bridewell Workhouse, English legislators had already established several statutes known as the Poor Laws. These laws targeted debtors who owed creditors, and for those unable to pay their debts, sanctions were imposed. Debtors’ prisons were places where debtors were incarcerated until they could pay their debts. Because they needed to work to earn the money required to pay off their debts, and because opportunities for earning money for prison labor were almost nonexistent, imprisonment for debts was tantamount to a life sentence. Many offenders were incarcerated indefinitely, or until someone, perhaps a relative or an influential friend, could pay off their debts for them.

The Poor Laws were directed at the poor or socioeconomically disadvantaged. In 1601, additional statutes were established that provided constructive work for youth deemed by the courts to be vagrant, incorrigible, truant, or neglected. In general, education was not an option for these youth—it was an expensive commodity available almost exclusively to children from the upper social strata. For the masses of poor, education was usually beyond their reach; they spent most of their time earning money to pay for life’s basic necessities. They had little or no time to consider education as a realistic option (Champion, 2008a).

Indentured Servants

During the 1700s, youth became apprentices, usually to master craftsmen, in a system of involuntary servitude. This servitude was patterned in part after the indentured servant system. Indentured servants entered voluntarily into contractual agreements with various merchants and businessmen to work for them for extended periods of up to seven years. This seven-year work agreement was considered by all parties to be a mutually beneficial way of paying for the indentured servant’s passage from England to the colonies. In the case of youthful apprentices, however, their servitude, for the most part, was compulsory. Furthermore, it usually lasted until they reached adulthood, or age 21.

During the Colonial period, English influence on penal practices was apparent in most New England jurisdictions. Colonists relied on familiar traditions for administering laws and sanctioning offenders. It is no coincidence, therefore, that much of the criminal procedures in American courts today trace their origins to legal customs and precedents inherent in British jurisprudence during the 1600s and 1700s. However, relatively little attention was devoted to the legal status of juveniles during this period, or to how to manage them. In fact, more than a few juveniles were summarily executed for relatively petty offenses (Champion, 2008a).

Hospital of Saint Michael

In other parts of the world during this same era, certain religious groups were gradually devising institutions that catered primarily to youthful offenders. For example, in Italy, a corrective facility was established in 1704 to provide for unruly youth and other young people who violated criminal laws. This facility was the Hospital of Saint Michael, constructed in Rome at the request of Pope Clement XI (Sellin, 1930). This institution was misleadingly named, however, because the youth it housed were not ill. Rather, they were assigned various tasks and trained to perform semiskilled and skilled labor—useful tools that would enable them to find employment more easily after their release from Saint Michael. During rest periods and evening hours, youth were housed in individual cells.

The Child Savers and Houses of Refuge

As more American families gravitated toward large cities, such as New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago, during the early 1800s to find work, increasing numbers of children roamed the streets, most often unsupervised by working parents who could not afford child care services. Lacking familial controls, many of these youth committed acts of vandalism and theft. Others were simply idle, without visible means of support, and were designated as vagrants. Again, religious organizations intervened to protect unsupervised youth from the perils of life in the streets. Believing that these youth would subsequently turn to lives of crime as adults, many reformers and philanthropists sought to save them from their plight.

Thus, in different cities throughout the United States, various groups were formed to find and control these youth by offering them constructive work programs, healthful living conditions, and above all, adult supervision. Collectively, these efforts became widely known as the child savers movement. Child savers came largely from the middle and upper classes, and their assistance to youth took many forms (Platt, 1969). Food and shelter were provided to children who were in trouble with the law or who were simply idle. Private homes were converted into settlements where social, educational, and other important activities could be provided for needy youth. The child savers were not limited to the United States. In Scotland and England during the 1850s, child-saving institutions were abundant, with philosophies and interests similar to those of the child-saving organizations in the United States. In England particularly, middle-class values were imposed on the children of the working class through institutional education, training, and discipline, and eventually, several juvenile reformatories were established for the purpose of institutional control (Blevins, 2005).

In the United States, more than a few child-saving organizations sought to impose their class, ethnic, and racial biases on the poor, immigrants, and minority women. A middle-class gender ideology of maternal care was imposed upon working-and lower-class mothers. Many of these mothers were declared unfit and in need of state control, because they did not conform to the cultural ideal espoused by middle-and upper-class child savers. Thus, there was the general charge that child savers sought to control and resocialize the children of the so-called dangerous classes for the benefit of the capitalist entrepreneurs (Platt, 1969). However, not everyone today agrees that the child savers exploited children. In certain cities, such as Wilmington, Delaware, the child savers movement emphasized education rather than work. Furthermore, the ultimate aims of this movement in Delaware and several other states were largely altruistic and humanitarian. Even in contemporary youth corrections, the child saver orientation influences the care and treatment strategies of personnel (Blevins, 2005).

The New York House of Refuge was established in New York City in 1825 by the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (Campbell and Gonzalez, 2007). Subsequently imitated in other communities, houses of refuge were institutions largely devoted to managing status offenders, such as runaways or incorrigible children. Compulsory education and other forms of training and assistance were provided to these children. However, the strict, prison-like regimen of this organization was not entirely therapeutic for its clientele. Many of the youthful offenders who were sent to such institutions, including the House of Reformation in Boston, were offspring of immigrants. Often, they rebelled when exposed to the discipline of these organizations, and many of these youth eventually pursued criminal careers as a consequence. Thus, it would appear that at least some of these humanitarian and philanthropic efforts by child savers and others had adverse consequences for many affected juveniles.

Another facility with a notorious reputation for how it treated juveniles was the Western House of Refuge in Rochester, New York, which operated during the 1880s. Juvenile inmates of this facility were considered to be deviant and criminal. In reality, however, the youth institutionalized at the Western House of Refuge were primarily orphaned, abused, or neglected. Their treatment consisted of hard labor and rigid discipline. Fortunately, not all houses of refuge were like this one. In California, for instance, several houses of refuge were operated in ways that stressed vocational training, educational instruction, and some amount of aftercare when youth were ultimately released (Champion, 2008a).

Up until the late 1830s, there was little or no pattern to the division of labor between parental, religious, and state authority. As private interests continued to include larger numbers of juveniles within the scope of their supervision, various jurisdictions sought to regulate and institutionalize these assorted juvenile assistance, treatment, and/or intervention programs. In many communities, city councils sanctioned the establishment of facilities to accommodate youth who were delinquent, dependent, or neglected.

Ex Parte Crouse (1839)

In 1839, a decision in a state case gave juvenile authorities considerable power over parents in the management and control of their own children. Ex parte Crouse (1839) was a case involving a father who attempted to secure the release of his daughter, Mary Ann Crouse, from the Philadelphia House of Refuge. The girl had been committed to the Philadelphia facility by the court because she was considered to be unmanageable. She was not given a trial by jury, and her commitment was made arbitrarily by a presiding judge. A higher court rejected the father’s claim that parental control of children is exclusive, natural, and proper, and it upheld the power of the state to exercise necessary reforms and restraints to protect children from themselves and their environments. While this decision was only applicable to Pennsylvania citizens and their children, other states took note of it and sought to invoke similar controls over errant children in their jurisdictions. Essentially, children in Pennsylvania were temporarily deprived of any legal standing to challenge decisions made by the state on their behalf.

Reform Schools and People ex rel. O’Connell v. Turner (1870)

Throughout the remainder of the 19th century, different types of institutions were established to supervise unruly juveniles. In roughly the mid-1800s, reform schools in several jurisdictions were created. One of the first state-operated reform schools was opened in Westboro, Massachusetts, in 1848, and by the end of that century, all states had reform schools of one sort or another. All of these institutions were characterized by strict discipline, absolute control over juvenile behavior, and compulsory work at various trades. Another common feature was that they were controversial (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 2007).

The primary question raised by reform school critics was “Do reform schools reform?” Many juveniles continued to commit delinquent acts after being released from these schools and eventually became adult criminals, so the rehabilitative value of reform schools was seriously challenged. The Civil War exacerbated the problem of unruly youth, since many families were disrupted and children were left without fathers. Orphans of dead soldiers were commonplace in the post–Civil War period. Such children were often committed to reform schools, regardless of whether they had committed criminal offenses. Many status offenders were also sent to reform schools, simply because they were vagrants. Most of these children did not need to be reformed. Rather, they needed homes and noninstitutional care.

One state, Illinois, was particularly aggressive when it came to confining juveniles in reform schools. Many of these incarcerated juveniles were children of immigrant workers in and around Chicago, and they were often rounded up and imprisoned for simple loitering or playing in the city streets. The Chicago Reform School was especially notorious as a site where such youth were sent and confined. In 1870, however, the Illinois Supreme Court decided a case that ultimately prohibited such juvenile arrests by police and incarcerations. This was the case of People ex rel. O’Connell v. Turner (1870). Even so, few legal challenges to state authority were made by complaining parents, both because of the awesome power of the state and because of its control over juvenile matters. However, an Illinois case paved the way for special courts for juveniles and an early recognition of their rights.

In this case, a youth, Daniel O’Connell, was declared vagrant and in need of supervision and committed to the Chicago Reform School for an unspecified period. O’Connell’s parents challenged this court action, claiming that his confinement for vagrancy was unjust and untenable. Existing Illinois law vested state authorities with the power to commit any juvenile to a state reform school as long as a “reasonable justification” could be provided. In this instance, vagrancy was a reasonable justification. The Illinois Supreme Court, however, distinguished between misfortune (vagrancy) and criminal acts in arriving at its decision to reverse Daniel O’Connell’s commitment. In effect, the court nullified the law by declaring that reform school commitments of youth could not be made by the state if the “offense” was simple misfortune. The court reasoned that state interests would be better served if commitments of juveniles to reform schools were limited to those committing more serious criminal offenses rather than those who were victims of poverty. The Illinois Supreme Court further held that it was unconstitutional for youth who had not been convicted of criminal conduct or afforded legal due process to be confined in the Chicago Reform School. One result of this decision was the eventual closure of the Chicago Reform School two years later, and as one alternative to incarceration, Illinois youth without adult supervision were placed under the care of social service agencies and benevolent societies. Both individuals and groups established community residential facilities for displaced or wayward youth (Champion, 2008a).

Community-Based Private Agencies

In 1889, Jane Addams established and operated Hull House in Chicago, Illinois (Addams, 1912). Hull House was a settlement home used largely by children from immigrant families in the Chicago area. In those days, adults worked long hours, and many youth were otherwise unsupervised and wandered about their neighborhoods looking for something to do. Using money from various charities and philanthropists, Addams supplied many children with creative activities to alleviate their boredom and monotony, and she integrated these activities with moral, ethical, and religious teachings in an effort to deter these youth from lives of crime.

Truancy Statutes

Truants were first created as a class of juvenile offenders in 1852 in Massachusetts, where the first compulsory school attendance statute was passed. Many other states adopted similar statutes, until all jurisdictions had compulsory school attendance provisions by 1918. Some historians have erroneously credited Colorado as having drafted the first juvenile court provisions. In fact, the Colorado legislature enacted the Compulsory School Act of 1899, the same year that the first juvenile court was established in Illinois (Reddington, 2005). The Colorado action was aimed at preventing truancy, and although Colorado legislators labeled such youth as “juvenile disorderly persons,” this action did not lead to the creation of a Colorado juvenile court.


School-age youth may be truants and attract police interest.

(Courtesy of Dean John Champion)

The Illinois Juvenile Court Act

The Illinois legislature established the first juvenile court on July 1, 1899, by passing the Act to Regulate the Treatment and Control of Dependent, Neglected, and Delinquent Children, or the Illinois Juvenile Court Act. The Act provided for limited courts of record, where notes might be taken by judges or their assistants, to reflect judicial actions against juveniles. The jurisdiction of these courts, subsequently designated as juvenile courts, would include all juveniles under the age of 16 who were found in violation of any state or local law or ordinance. Also, provision was made for the care of dependent and/or neglected children who had been abandoned or otherwise lacked proper parental care, support, or guardianship. No minimum age was specified that would limit the jurisdiction of juvenile court judges. However, the Act provided that judges could impose secure confinement on juveniles 10 years of age or older by placing them in state-regulated juvenile facilities, such as the state reformatory or the State Home for Juvenile Female Offenders. Judges were expressly prohibited from confining any juvenile under 12 years of age in a jail or police station. Extremely young juveniles would be assigned probation officers who would look after their needs and placement on a temporary basis.

The Illinois Juvenile Court Act says much about the times and how the legal status of juveniles was interpreted and applied. The full title of the Act is revealing. According to the Act, it was applicable only to

“…children under the age of sixteen (16) years not now or hereafter inmates of a State institution, or any training school for boys or industrial school for girls or some institution incorporated under the laws of this State, except as provided [in other sections]…” For purposes of this act the words dependent child and neglected child shall mean any child who for any reason is destitute or homeless or abandoned; or dependent upon the public for support; or has not proper parental care or guardianship; or who habitually begs or receives alms; or who is found living in any house of ill fame or with any vicious or disreputable person; or whose home, by reason of neglect, cruelty or depravity on the part of its parents, guardian or other person in whose care it may be, is an unfit place for such a child; and any child under the age of eight (8) years who is found peddling or selling any article or singing or playing any musical instrument upon the streets or giving any public entertainment. The words delinquent child shall include any child under the age of 16 years who violates any law of this State or any city or village ordinance. The word child or children may mean one or more children, and the word parent or parents may be held to mean one or both parents, when consistent with the intent of this act. The word association shall include any corporation which includes in its purposes the care or disposition of children coming within the meaning of this act.

Even more insightful is what happened when such children were found. What were the limits of court sanctions? The Illinois law authorized juvenile court judges to take the following actions in their dealings with dependent and neglected children:

When any child under the age of sixteen (16) years shall be found to be dependent or neglected within the meaning of this act, the court may make an order committing the child to the care of some suitable State institution, or to the care of some reputable citizen of good moral character, or to the care of some training school or an industrial school, as provided by law, or to the care of some association willing to receive it embracing in its objects the purpose of caring or obtaining homes for dependent or neglected children, which association shall have been accredited as hereinafter provided.

For juvenile delinquents, similar provisions were made. Judges were authorized to continue the hearing for any specific delinquent child from time to time and could commit the child to the care and guardianship of a probation officer. The child might be permitted to remain in its own home, subject to the visitation of the probation officer. Judges were also authorized to commit children to state training or industrial schools until such time as they reached the age of their majority or adulthood (Champion, 2008a).

Juveniles as Chattel

The choice of the word it shows how youth were viewed in those days. In early English times, children were considered to be chattel, lumped together with the cows, pigs, horses, and other farm property one might lawfully possess. The Illinois Juvenile Court Act itself was sufficiently ambiguous so as to allow judges and others considerable latitude or discretion about how to interpret juvenile behaviors. For example, what is meant by proper parental care or guardianship? What is habitual begging? Is occasional begging acceptable? Would children be subject to arrest and juvenile court sanctions for walking city streets playing a flute or other musical devices? Who decides what homes and establishments are unfit? Where are the criteria that describe a home’s fitness? It has almost always been presumed that juvenile court judges know the answers to these questions, and their judgments, regardless of their foundation, rationality, or consistency with due process, have been and still are seldom questioned.

These statements reflect the traditionalism that juvenile court judges have manifested over the years (Campbell and Gonzalez, 2007). Taking dependent and neglected or abandoned children and placing them in training or industrial schools is the functional equivalent of adult incarceration in a prison or jail. And in 1899, the Illinois legislature gave juvenile court judges absolute control over the lives of all children under age 16 in the State of Illinois. During the next 10 years, 20 states passed similar acts to establish juvenile courts. By the end of World War II, all states had created juvenile court systems. However, considerable variation existed among these court systems, depending on the jurisdiction. Not all of these courts were vested with a consistent set of responsibilities and powers.

Children’s Tribunals

Earlier versions of juvenile courts were created in Massachusetts in 1874. These included, for instance, children’s tribunals, sometimes referred to as civil tribunals. These informal mechanisms were used to adjudicate and punish children charged with crimes, and they were entirely independent from the system of criminal courts for adults. Usually, judges would confer with the equivalent of a social worker and then decide how best to deal with a wayward youth. Under the tribunal system, youth were not entitled to representation by counsel, and the proceedings occurred in secret, away from public view. Furthermore, there were no formal presentations of evidence against the accused youth, no transcripts, no cross-examination of witnesses, and no right to appeal a judicial decision.

Some years later, Colorado implemented an education law in 1899 known as the Compulsory School Act (Shepherd, 1999). Although the Act was primarily targeted at truants, it also encompassed juveniles who wandered the streets during school hours without any obvious business or occupation. These youth were termed juvenile disorderly persons, and they were legislatively placed within the purview of truant officers and law enforcement officers who could detain and hold them for further action by other community agencies. While both Massachusetts and Colorado created these different mechanisms specifically for dealing with juvenile offenders, they were not juvenile courts in the same sense as those established by Illinois in 1899. Furthermore, these truancy-oriented courts are not an exclusively American creation. In England, for example, precourt tribunals have been established to decide whether families should be taken to court because of a child’s nonattendance at school. The intent of such tribunals is to normalize families and destroy deviant identities juveniles might acquire because of their school absences. Both parents and children must reassure the judge that regular school attendance will be forthcoming.

Informal Welfare Agencies and Emerging Juvenile Courts

The juvenile court has evolved from an informal welfare agency into a scaled-down, second-class criminal court as the result of a series of reforms that have diverted less-serious offenders to social service agencies and moved more-serious offenders to criminal courts for processing (Feld, 2007). Several policy responses have been recommended as options. These include (1) restructuring the juvenile courts to fit their original therapeutic purposes; (2) accepting punishment as the purpose of delinquency proceedings, coupled with criminal procedural safeguards; and/or (3) abolishing juvenile courts altogether and trying young offenders in criminal courts, with certain substantive and procedural modifications.

From Gemeinschaft to Gesellschaft and Reconceptualizing Juveniles

Before the establishment of juvenile courts, how were juvenile offenders processed and punished? How were dependent and neglected children treated? Social scientists would probably describe village and community life in the 1700s and 1800s by citing the dominant social and cultural values that existed then. The term gemeinschaft might be used here to describe the lifestyle one might find in such settings. It is a term utilized to characterize social relations which are being highly dependent upon verbal agreements and understandings and informality. Ferdinand Tonnies, a social theorist, used gemeinschaft to convey the richness of tradition that would typify small communities where everyone was known to all others. In these settings, formal punishments, such as incarceration in prisons or jails, were seldom used. More effective than incarceration were punishments that heightened public humiliation through stocks and pillars and other corporal measures. Sufficient social pressure was exerted so that most complied with the law. Thus, in gemeinschaft communities, people would probably fear social stigma, ostracism, and scorn more than loss of freedom through incarceration (Kidd, 2007).

In these communities, youth were considered to remain children through adolescence, eventually becoming adults as they began to perform trades or crafts and earned independent livings apart from their families. Children performed apprenticeships over lengthy periods under the tutorship of master craftsmen and others, and many of the terms we currently use to describe delinquent acts and status offenses were nonexistent then. As the nation grew, however, urbanization and the increasing population density of large cities changed social relationships gradually but extensively. Tonnies described the nature of this gradual shift in social relationships from a gemeinschaft-type of social network to a gesellschaft-type of society. In gesellschaft societies, social relationships are more formal, contractual, and impersonal, and there is greater reliance on codified compilations of appropriate and lawful conduct as a means of regulating social relations.

As urbanization gradually occurred, the concept of children was reconceptualized. During the period of Reconstruction following the Civil War, there were no child labor laws, and children were increasingly exploited by industry and businesses. In their early years, children were put to work for low wages in factories, also known as sweat shops, where long hours were required and persons worked at repetitive jobs on assembly lines. By the end of the 19th century, in part because of these widespread nonunionized and unregulated sweat shop operations and compulsory school attendance for youth during their early years, loitering youth became increasingly visible and attracted the attention of the general public and law enforcement.

Specialized Juvenile Courts

Special courts were subsequently established to adjudicate juvenile matters, and the technical language describing inappropriate youthful conduct or misbehaviors was greatly expanded and refined. These new courts were also vested with the authority to appoint probation officers and other persons considered suitable to manage juvenile offenders and enforce the new juvenile codes that most cities created. Today, larger police departments have specialized juvenile units or divisions in which only juvenile law violations or suspicious activities are investigated.

In retrospect, the original aggregate of child savers had much to do with inventing delinquency and its numerous, specialized subcategories as we know them today. At the very least, they contributed to the formality of the present juvenile justice system by defining a range of impermissible juvenile behaviors that would require an operational legal apparatus to address. Once a juvenile justice system was established and properly armed with the right conceptual tools, it was a relatively easy step to enforce a fairly rigid set of juvenile behavioral standards and regulate most aspects of youth conduct. This seems to be a part of a continuing pattern designed to criminalize the juvenile courts and hold juveniles accountable to the same standards as adult offenders (Blevins, 2005).

As juvenile court systems became more widespread, it was apparent that these proceedings were quite different from those of criminal courts in several respects. As noted above, different terms were used to distinguish delinquents from adult offenders and to recognize that this was not a criminal court (Table 2.1). Largely determined by the judge, these proceedings typically involved the juvenile charged with some offense, and a petitioner claiming the juvenile should be declared delinquent, a status offender, dependent, or neglected. The judge would weigh the evidence and decide the matter. Juveniles themselves were not provided with opportunities to solicit witnesses or even give testimony on their own behalf. Defense attorneys were largely unknown in juvenile courtrooms, since there were no significant issues to defend and the issue of guilt or innocence was not in question. The focus was on the best interests of the child.

Table 2.1 Terms Used with Juvenile Delinquents Compared to Adult Offenders

Juvenile Term Adult Term
Adjudication hearing Trial
Adjudicated delinquent Convicted offender
Aftercare Parole
Commitment Incarceration
Delinquent act Crime
Detention Jail
Disposition hearing Sentencing
Petition Indictment, charge
Take into custody Arrest

Juvenile court proceedings were closed to the general public, primarily to protect the identities of the youth accused. However, a latent function of such secrecy was to obscure from public view the high-handed and discriminatory decision making that characterized many juvenile court judges. In short, they did not want the general public to know about the subjectivity and arbitrary nature of their decisions. On the basis of allegations alone, together with uncorroborated statements and pronouncements from probation officers and others, juvenile court judges were free to declare any particular juvenile either delinquent or nondelinquent. The penalties that could be imposed were wide-ranging, from verbal reprimands and warnings to full-fledged incarceration in a secure juvenile facility. Virtually everything depended upon the opinions and views of the presiding juvenile court judges, and their decisions were not appealable to higher courts.

Throughout much of the 20th century, juveniles had no legal standing in American courts. Their constitutional rights were not at issue, because they did not have any constitutional protections in the courtroom. No rules of evidence existed to govern the quality of evidence admitted or to challenge the reliability or integrity of testifying witnesses. In most jurisdictions, juveniles were not entitled to jury trials unless the juvenile court judge approved, and most juvenile court judges opted for bench trials rather than granting jury trials to juvenile defendants. Because these proceedings were exclusively civil in nature, the rules of criminal procedure governing criminal courts did not apply. Juveniles did not acquire criminal records; rather, they acquired civil adjudications of delinquency. Yet, the incarceration dimension of the juvenile justice system has almost always paralleled that of the criminal justice system. Industrial or training schools, reform schools, and other types of secure confinement for juveniles have generally been nothing more than juvenile prisons. Thus, for many adjudicated juvenile offenders sentenced to one of these industrial schools, these sentences were the equivalent of imprisonment.

Children and Due Process

Such unchecked discretion among juvenile court judges continued well into the 1960s. One explanation for the authority exercised by judges is mass complacency or apathy among the general public about juvenile affairs. Juvenile matters were considered to be relatively unimportant and trivial. Another explanation is the prevalent belief that juvenile court judges knew what was best for adjudicated offenders and usually prescribed appropriate punishments. Based on the ideas of parens patriae and judicial benevolence, juvenile court judges were trusted to act in the best interests of the child. This justified the informal juvenile court, which did not need due process rights or protections for youth.

In 1966, however, the U.S. Supreme Court raised concern about the abuse of discretion and signaled a different perspective when it determined that certain protections were necessary if a youth was transferred to criminal court. In Kent v. United States (1966), the Supreme Court decided that basic due process rights, including an investigation and a hearing, were essential before a youth could be transferred from juvenile court jurisdiction. While the due process only applied to waiver decisions, Kent was significant, because the Court acknowledged that youth needed some fundamental protection. A year later, the Court decided the case of In re Gault (1967) and applied more stringent standards to juvenile court judge decision making, thus making the court more accountable by ensuring due process rights.

Briefly, Gerald Gault was a 15-year-old Arizona youth who allegedly made an obscene telephone call to an adult female neighbor. The woman called police, suggested that the youth, Gault, was the guilty party, and Gault was summarily taken into custody and detained for nearly two days. The woman was never brought to court as a witness, and the only evidence she provided was her initial verbal accusation made to the police on the day of Gault’s arrest. Gault himself allegedly admitted that he dialed the woman’s number, but he claimed that a boyfriend of his actually spoke to the woman and made the remarks she found offensive. Partly because Gault had been involved in an earlier petty offense and had a “record,” the judge, together with the probation officer, decided that Gault was dangerous enough to commit to the Arizona State Industrial School, Arizona’s main juvenile penitentiary, until he reached 21 years of age or juvenile corrections authorities decided he was rehabilitated and could be safely released. According to Arizona law, the sentence was unappealable. Any adult convicted of the same offense might have been fined $50 and/or sentenced to a 30-day jail term, but in Gault’s case, he received six years in a juvenile prison, complete with correctional officers carrying firearms, high walls, locked gates, and barbed wire.

Appropriately, the U.S. Supreme Court referred to the court of the judge who originally sentenced Gault as a kangaroo court. Gault’s sentence was reversed, and several important constitutional rights were conferred upon all juveniles as a result. Specifically, all of Gault’s due process rights had been denied. He had been denied counsel, had not been protected against self-incrimination, had not been permitted to cross-examine his accuser, and had not been provided with specific notice of the charges against him. Now, all juveniles enjoy these rights in every U.S. juvenile court.

It is important to note that Arizona was not alone in its harsh and one-sided treatment of juvenile offenders. What transpired in the Gault case was occurring in juvenile courts of most other jurisdictions at that time. The Gault case served to underscore the lack of legal standing of juveniles everywhere, and substantial juvenile justice reforms were established as a result (D’Angelo and Brown, 2005).

The Increasing Bureaucratization and Criminalization of Juvenile Justice

After the Gault case and other important Supreme Court decisions affecting juveniles, the nature of juvenile courts began to change. This transformation was not consistent, however, and began to reflect competing images of juvenile justice. The U.S. Supreme Court continued to view juvenile courts as basically rehabilitative and treatment-centered apparatuses, thus reinforcing the traditional doctrine within the context of various constitutional restraints. Nevertheless, episodic changes in juvenile court procedures and the juvenile justice system generally suggested that it was becoming increasingly similar to criminal courts. Furthermore, many juvenile courts moved away from traditional methods of conducting adjudicatory hearings for juveniles. Instead of individualized decision making and a rehabilitative orientation, many judges were more interested in mechanisms that streamline the processing of juvenile cases and offenders. In fact, some juvenile courts have used mathematical models to establish profiles of juvenile offenders to expedite the adjudicatory process. This has been termed actuarial justice by some authorities, and it means that the traditional orientation of juvenile justice and punishment has been supplanted by the goal of efficient offender processing (LaMade, 2008). In Minnesota, the development of new Rules of Procedure for Juvenile Court and the current administrative assumptions and operations of these courts, with limited exceptions, often render them indistinguishable from criminal courts and the procedures those courts follow.

Measuring Juvenile Delinquency: The Uniform Crime Reports and National Crime Victimization Survey

Two official sources of information for both adult and juvenile crime are the Uniform Crime Reports and the National Crime Victimization Survey.

Uniform Crime Reports

The Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) has been published annually since 1930 by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in Washington, DC. The UCR is a compilation of arrests for different offenses according to several time intervals. Periodic reports of arrests are issued quarterly to interested law enforcement agencies. All rural and urban law enforcement agencies are requested, on a voluntary basis, to submit statistical information about 29 different offenses. Most of these agencies submit arrest information. Thus, the UCR represents over 15,000 law enforcement agencies throughout the United States.

Crime in the UCR is classified into two major categories, Part I offenses and Part II offenses. Part I offenses, also known as index offenses, are considered to be the most serious, and eight serious felonies are listed. These include murder and nonnegligent manslaughter, forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny-theft, motor vehicle theft, and arson. Table 2.2 presents the eight major index offenses and their definitions.

Table 2.2 Uniform Crime Report, Part I: Crimes and Their Definition

Crime Definition
Murder and nonnegligent manslaughter Willful (nonnegligent) killing of one human being by another
Forcible rape Carnal knowledge of a female, forcibly and against her will; assaults or attempts to commit rape by force or threat of force are included
Robbery Taking or attempting to take anything of value from the care, custody, or control of a person or persons by force or threat of force or violence and/or by putting the victim in fear
Aggravated assault Unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury
Burglary Unlawful entry into a structure to commit a felony or theft
Larceny-theft Unlawful taking, carrying, leading, or riding away of property from the possession or constructive possession of another, including shoplifting, pocket picking, purse snatching, and thefts of motor vehicle parts or accessories
Motor vehicle theft Theft or attempted theft of a motor vehicle, including automobiles, trucks, buses, motor scooters, and snowmobiles
Arson Any willful or malicious burning or attempt to burn, with or without intent to defraud, a dwelling house, public building, motor vehicle, or aircraft and the personal property of another

Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation (2009). Crime in the United States, 2008. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

These eight major offenses are classified as felonies. Felonies are violations of criminal laws that are punishable by terms of imprisonment of one year or longer in state or federal prisons or penitentiaries. These offenses are also known as index offenses, because they provide readers with a sample of key or index crimes that can be charted quarterly or annually, according to different jurisdictions and demographic and socioeconomic dimensions (e.g., city size, age, race, gender, and urban–rural). Thus, the crime categories listed are not intended to be an exhaustive compilation. However, it is possible to review these representative crime categories to obtain a general picture of trends across years or other desired time segments.

The UCR also lists a second group of offenses known as Part II offenses. These include misdemeanors and status offenses, such as embezzlement, stolen property, vandalism, carrying weapons, drug abuse violations, sex offenses, driving under the influence, liquor law violations, vagrancy, suspicion, curfew and loitering violations, runaway behavior, and disorderly conduct (Henry and Kobus, 2007). A misdemeanor is a violation of criminal laws that is punishable by an incarcerative term of less than one year in city or county jails. Status offenses listed, including runaway behavior, truancy, and violation of curfew, are not considered to be crimes, although they are reported together with criminal offenses to give a more complete picture of arrest activity throughout the United States. The offenses listed are not an exhaustive compilation. Rather, a sample listing of crimes based on arrests is provided.

As Hagan (2011) explains, understanding crime trends is more useful for comparative purposes if the data are reported as rates rather than as number of offenses. The crime rate is a statistic that presents the total number of crimes per 100,000 population (Hagan, 2011, p. 31). The formula for calculating rates is

crime/population × 100,000 = crime rate

Since the crime rate controls for population size, examining crime rates for different cities or states, or between different years when populations may increase or decrease, allows reasonable comparisons. For example, the number of arrests for aggravated assault in the United States in 2010 was 778,901; in Washington, DC, the number was 3,360. Obviously, the population of the United States in 2010 (308,745,538) was larger than the population in Washington, DC (601,723). Using the arrest rates for aggravated assaults allows comparisons of one city to the United States. In this example for 2010, the rate of aggravated assault in the United States was 252.3 per 100,000 population, compared to 558.4 per 100,000 in Washington, DC (The Disaster Center, 2011). Similarly, in Massachusetts, with a 2010 population of 6,547,629, the aggravated assault crime rate was 331.8 per 100,000. In comparison, Massachusetts with a population more than 10 times that of Washington, DC, has a lower rate of aggravated assault.

National Crime Victimization Survey

Compared with the UCR, the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) is conducted annually by the U.S. Bureau of the Census. It is a random survey of approximately 60,000 dwellings, about 127,000 youth aged 12 and over, and approximately 50,000 businesses. Subsamples of persons are questioned by interviewers who compile information about crime victims. Those interviewed are asked whether they have had different types of crime committed against them during the past six months to one year. Through statistical analysis, the amount of crime throughout the general population can be estimated (Champion, 2008a).

The NCVS provides information about criminal victimizations and incidents. Victimization is a basic measure of the occurrence of a crime and is a specific criminal act that affects a single victim. An incident is a specific criminal act that may involve one or more victims. Because the NCVS reflects an amount of crime allegedly perpetrated against a large sample of victims, it is believed to be more accurate as a national crime estimate than the UCR. Thus, whenever comparisons of crime from the UCR are made against the NCVS, the NCVS reports between two to four times the amount of crime as indicated by the official law enforcement agency arrest figures in the UCR.

Strengths of These Measures

One strength of these indicators of crime in the United States is the sheer numbers of offenses reported. Few alternative sources of information about crime in the United States exhibit such voluminous reporting. In addition, regional and seasonal reports of criminal activity are provided. The UCR also reports the proportion of different types of crime that are cleared by arrest, meaning that someone has been arrested and charged with a particular crime. Another favorable feature of both the UCR and the NCVS is that numbers of arrests and reported crimes can be compared across years. Therefore, the UCR reports percentage increases or decreases in the amount of different types of crime for many jurisdictions and over various time periods. And although the NCVS does not purport to survey all crime victims, the randomness inherent in the selection of the target respondents is such that generalizations about the U.S. population are considered to be reasonably valid.

A primary advantage of the NCVS over the UCR is that victims offer interviewers information about crimes committed against them. In many instances, these respondents disclose that they did not report these crimes to police. The reasons for not reporting crimes to police vary, although these victims often believe that the police cannot do much about their victimization anyway. Rape victims may be too embarrassed to report these incidents, or they may feel that they were partially to blame. Furthermore, in some of these cases, family members or close friends may be the perpetrators, and victims may be reluctant to press criminal charges.

Weaknesses of These Measures

Certain limitations of the UCR and NCVS are well documented. Focusing upon the UCR first, we may cite some of the more important weaknesses of these statistics. For instance, the UCR figures do not provide an annual per capita measure of crime frequency. Because law enforcement agencies are not compelled to submit annual information to the FBI, some agencies fail to report their arrest activity, and those that do may fail to report crime uniformly. Also, crimes of the same name vary in definition among jurisdictions. In North Dakota, for instance, “rape” is not listed as a crime; rather, it is called “gross sexual imposition.” This conceptual variation in how identical offenses are labeled among the states frustrates efforts by the FBI and others to track different types of crimes accurately and consistently.

The UCR only reports arrests, not the actual amount of crime. In addition, when arrests are reported in the UCR, only the most serious offenses are often reported. Thus, if a robbery suspect is apprehended, he or she may possess burglary tools, a concealed weapon, and stolen property and may have caused physical injuries to victims. All of these events are crimes, but only the robbery—the most serious offense—will be reported to the FBI. Therefore, there is much basis for the belief that these official reports of crime are, at best, underestimates. Arrest activity in the UCR may then be attributable to fluctuations in police activity rather than actual fluctuations in criminal activity. Finally, although they only make up a fraction of national criminal activity, federal crimes are not reported in the UCR.

Both the NCVS and the UCR overemphasize street crimes and underemphasize corporate or white-collar crimes. Self-reported information contained in the NCVS is often unreliable. Sometimes, for example, victims interviewed may not be able to identify certain actions against them as crimes. For instance, date rapes may be reported as assaults. Also, persons may not be able to remember clearly certain criminal events. Fear of reprisals from criminals may compel some victims not to disclose their victimizations to interviewers, and some victimization data reported in the NCVS may be either exaggerated or more liberally reported. For various reasons, interviewees may lie to interviewers in disclosing details of crimes committed against them.

Despite these criticisms, the UCR and NCVS provide valuable data for interested professionals. The fact that virtually all law enforcement agencies rely to some extent on these annual figures as valid indicators of criminal activity in the United States suggests that their utility in this regard is invaluable. Supplementing this information are other, more detailed, reports of selected offense activity. The U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics publishes a tremendous amount of information annually about different dimensions of crime and offender characteristics and behavior. This supplemental information, together with the data provided by the UCR and NCVS, may be combined to furnish a more complete picture of crime in the United States. Several alternative data sources are discussed in the following section.

Additional Sources

One of the best compendiums of data specifically about juveniles and juvenile court adjudications is the National Juvenile Court Data Archive. When the federal government began collecting data pertaining to juveniles in 1926, the data were dependent upon the voluntary completion of statistical forms by juvenile courts in a limited number of U.S. jurisdictions. Today, however, the National Juvenile Court Data Archive contains over 800,000 annual automated case records of juveniles in various states. Numerous data sets are currently available to researchers and may be accessed for investigative purposes. These data sets are nonuniform, although they ordinarily contain information such as age at referral, gender, race, county of residence, offense(s) charged, date of referral, processing characteristics of the case (e.g., incarceration and manner of handling), and the disposition of the case (Champion, 2009).

In 1975, however, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) assumed responsibility for the National Juvenile Court Data Archive, which it now runs in addition to publishing periodic reports of juvenile offenses and adjudicatory outcomes. Today, the OJJDP publishes periodic compilations of current juvenile offender data in a statistical briefing book, summarizing important delinquency statistics and trends. Every few years, the OJJDP also publishes a comprehensive summary of juvenile justice information in a national report, Juvenile Offenders and Victims (OJJDP, 2007).

Another compendium of offender characteristics of all ages is The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics published annually by the Hindelang Criminal Justice Research Center and supported by grants from the U.S. Department of Justice. This is perhaps the most comprehensive source currently available, since it accesses numerous governmental documents and reports annually to keep readers abreast of the latest crime figures. Among other things, it describes justice system employment and spending, jail and prison management and prisoner issues, judicial misconduct and complaints, correctional officer characteristics, crime victim characteristics and victimization patterns, delinquent behavior patterns and trends, and considerable survey information. Numerous tables of data are presented that summarize much of the information reported by various private and governmental agencies. Useful annotated information is also provided to supplement the tabular material.

Statistics pertaining to juvenile offenders include juvenile admissions and discharges from public and private incarcerative facilities, average length of stay by juveniles in these facilities, a profile of the juvenile custody facilities, demographic information about juveniles detained for lengthy terms, criminal history or prior records of juveniles, illegal drug and alcohol use among juveniles, waiver information, and offense patterns according to socioeconomic and demographic factors. Each annual sourcebook is somewhat different from those published in previous years, although much of the material in subsequent editions has been updated from previous years.

Self-Report Information

While these official sources of crime and delinquency are quite useful, a common criticism is that they tend to underestimate the amount of offense behaviors that actually occur in the United States. As a result, those interested in studying juvenile offense behaviors have frequently relied upon data derived from self-reports. The self-report is a data collection method involving an unofficial survey of youth or adults in which the intent is to obtain information about specific types of behavior not ordinarily disclosed through traditional data collection methods, including questionnaires, interviews, polls, official agency reports, or sociodemographic summaries. This information is called self-report information. Self-report surveys are believed to be more accurate and informative compared with official sources of crime and delinquency information.

The exact origin of the use of self-reports is unknown. However, in 1943, Austin L. Porterfield investigated hidden delinquency, or delinquency neither detected by nor reported to police. Surveying several hundred college students, he asked them to disclose whether they had ever engaged in delinquent acts. While all of the students reported that they had previously engaged in delinquent acts, most also reported that they had not been caught by police or brought to the attention of the juvenile court (Porterfield, 1943).

In 1958, James Short and Ivan Nye conducted the first self-report study of a delinquent population. They obtained self-report information from hundreds of delinquents in several Washington State training schools, then compared this information with self-report data from hundreds of students in three Washington State communities and three Midwestern towns. Their findings revealed that delinquency was widespread and not specific to any social class. Furthermore, both seriousness and frequency of juvenile offending were key determinants of juvenile court treatment of youthful offenders and public policy relating to delinquents (Short and Nye, 1958).

Generally, self-report studies accomplish two important research objectives: (1) describing and understanding behavior and (2) predicting behavior. Self-report information provides considerable enriching details about persons under a variety of circumstances and furnishes important descriptive information about what people think and do. Such descriptions include how persons were treated as children and the events that were most significant to them as they grew to adulthood. The more that is learned about the significant occurrences in a child’s life, the better the predictive schemes to explain present—and to forecast future—behaviors. Self-reports, therefore, are an important source of information for descriptive and theoretical purposes, and from a theoretical standpoint, self-reports represent one important means of theory verification.

Some of the popular self-report surveys conducted annually are the National Youth Survey and the Monitoring the Future Survey. These are large-scale surveys of high-school students that focus upon particular behaviors. In addition, the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan annually solicits information from a national sample of 3,000 high-school students. These informative reports are frequently cited in the research literature, which attests to the integrity, reliability, and validity of this information among noted juvenile justice professionals.

These national surveys involve administering confidential questionnaires and checklists to high-school students. Students are asked to indicate which behaviors they have engaged in during the past six months or the previous year. Although considered to be unofficial sources of information about delinquency and delinquency patterns, these self-disclosures are thought by many professionals to be a more accurate reflection of delinquent behaviors than official sources, such as the UCR—assuming that their responses are truthful. Ordinarily, simple checklists are given to students, and they are asked to identify those behaviors they have done, not necessarily those for which they have been apprehended. An example of such a checklist is shown in Table 2.3.

Table 2.3 Sample Self-Report Questions from the National Youth Survey

On how many DAYS did you use any marijuana in the LAST MONTH (30 days)?
[ ] None
[ ] 1 or 2 days in the last month
[ ] 3 to 5 days in the last month
[ ] 6 to 9 days in the last month
[ ] 10 to 19 days in the last month
[ ] 20 to 31 days in the last month
On the days you use marijuana, how many times did you use it?
[ ] Once a day
[ ] Twice a day
[ ] 3 or more times a day
[ ] I don’t use marijuana
Have you EVER TRIED marijuana?
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
Do you think your best friend uses marijuana sometimes?
[ ] Yes
[ ] No

Source: National Youth Survey, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. OMB no. 0930. (Available at http://www.emt.org/userfiles/NYS_Baseline_12-18_Version.pdf.)

Self-reports also enable researchers to determine whether offending patterns among juveniles are changing over time. Substantial self-report information exists that characterizes violent juvenile offenders and catalogs the many potential causal factors that are associated with violence, such as gang involvement (Daigle, Cullen, and Wright, 2007). Self-reported data about juvenile offenses suggest that a sizeable gap exists between official reports of delinquent conduct and information disclosed through self-reports.

Self-reports reveal much more delinquency than is reported by either the UCR or the NCVS. However, since the NCVS information is also a form of self-disclosure, some investigators have found greater compatibility between delinquency self-reporting and the NCVS than between delinquency self-reporting and the UCR, which reports only arrest information. In any case, self-reports of delinquency or status offense conduct have caused researchers to refer to these undetected offending behaviors as hidden delinquency.

Some investigators question whether self-report information is reliable. Do youth tell the truth about their conduct, whatever the reported behavior? Some reported information is more easily refuted or confirmed by independent means. In the cases of illicit alcohol, tobacco, or drug use, independent tests may be conducted to determine the veracity of self-report information. In one school district, for instance, over 50 percent of all high-school students interviewed disclosed through self-reports that they smoked. Subsequent analyses of saliva specimens from the same students, however, revealed that less than 10 percent of them tested positive for tobacco use. For reasons unknown to the researchers, about half of the high school students reported that they used tobacco when most of them, in fact, did not. Were they bragging? Was this peer pressure in action? In view of the evidence, this is the strong implication.

The relationship between early childhood and the onset of status offending or delinquency has been heavily investigated using this method (Bowman, Prelow, and Weaver, 2007). Typically, parent–child association and attachment are linked with delinquent conduct (Beaver, Wright, and Delisi, 2007). Samples of delinquents and nondelinquents are asked to provide self-reports of their early upbringing, including their perceived closeness with parents and the disciplinary methods used to sanction misconduct. For instance, the etiology of delinquency as related to different family processes according to race/ethnicity has been studied. Does a sample of inner-city, high-risk youth reflect important differences in family processes according to race/ethnicity?

Information about runaways is almost exclusively determined from self-report studies. For example, it has been found that runaways, compared with other types of status offenders, have greater levels of family violence, rejection, and sexual abuse. Not unexpectedly, at least based upon self-report experiences, runaways were from families where there was less parental monitoring of juvenile behavior, warmth, and supportiveness (Chen, Thrane, and Whitbeck, 2007).

In a more general analysis of early childhood experiences involving adolescent maltreatment and its link with delinquency, self-reports have disclosed that some youth who are violent as adults have histories of maltreatment from family members (Lemmon and Verrecchia, 2009; Mersky and Reynolds, 2007). Lemmon and Verrecchia (2009), for example, concluded that the effects of childhood maltreatment on subsequent delinquency and aggression were affected by the “duration, frequency, and severity of the maltreatment” (p. 141). Child maltreatment is generally classified into “physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse, and neglect” (Lemmon and Verrecchia, 2009, p. 134). While the research is not consistent, the maltreatment–delinquency relationship is indicative of the concept of risk factors, which are predictive, but not absolute, in explaining delinquency.

Career Snapshot


(Courtesy of Peter J. Benekos)

Name: Amy C. Eisert

Position: Director, Mercyhurst Civic Institute

Colleges Attended: Bowling Green State University, Mercyhurst College, and Capella University

Degrees: B.S in Criminal Justice, M.S. in Administration of Justice, and A.B.D. in Human Services–Criminal Justice


I knew that I always wanted to explore a career in the juvenile justice field, and my dislike toward math assisted in pushing me into a social science field. I never realized that I would later find the perfect career as a “data geek.” I received my Bachelor’s of Science from Bowling Green State University in Criminal Justice with a minor in Sociology and a Master’s of Science in Administration of Justice from Mercyhurst College. I am currently a doctoral candidate at Capella University working toward a Ph.D. in Human Services, specializing in criminal justice.

When I graduated with my undergraduate degree, I knew I had an interest in working with youth but did not know where to begin. I had been offered opportunities to continue my education through graduate school; however, not knowing what exactly my specific interests were, I held off on pursing my higher education and decided to take a more colorful path entering the workforce. I started off as a residential counselor at a residential treatment facility. After two years of seeing youth revolving through the residential door, I felt I could have a greater impact working earlier on the continuum before home care, so I received training and started work as a family-based mental health therapist, working with youth and their families in their home settings. Through my work as a family therapist, I came to understand the struggles of some parents and families in seeking help from systems for their troubled youth. This led me to take on a position creating and implementing a new program for incorrigible youth. While working in the new incorrigible program, I recognized inefficiencies in programming, policies, and practices that I could neither prove nor disprove due to lack of data. It is at this time that I returned to school to pursue my master’s degree, which led me to finding my niche as a research analyst.

As a research analyst, and now the director of a research institute, it is my job to promote data-driven decision making, support cost-effective strategies, develop and track program outcomes, and facilitate collaborative efforts within my community. Many times, I take an advisory role in the identification, implementation, and evaluation of new programming, policies, and practices as well as work to strengthen existing programming. With funding constraints on prevention and other youth programming, my role adds accountability to services, assuring that the programming dollars are being well spent. In addition, I often assume the role as facilitator, working not only with the juvenile justice system but with all interrelated fields, including the criminal justice system, drug and alcohol, child welfare, health, mental health, and education. It is my job to promote cross-system collaboration, because the most efficient systems work to build off of the strengths of others.

Advice to Students

My advice for current undergraduate students would be to recognize that learning is an ongoing and interactive process. Make a point to draw from every interaction that you have with every person you encounter, whether it be a youth, a parent, a professor, another student, your own family, or anyone else. Embrace your personality, and utilize it as a tool in working with others. Whether you are working at a desk or in the community, building relationships is instrumental. Accept that your reality and view of the world is based off of your own experiences that may not be the same as those of others. I would encourage students to take the colorful path. Take advantage of any opportunities through internships, service learning, and volunteering. Those experiences not only increase the length and quality of your resume, they enhance your human experience in working with others, which will be the key to your success regardless of your field of work.

School violence is an increasingly important topic of discussion among parents, school officials, and juvenile justice professionals (Choi, 2007; Lawrence, 2009). Although the media suggest that school violence is pervasive, the sensationalism attached to school shootings does not accurately represent the extent of this violence (Slater, Hayes, and Ford, 2007). In 1998, for example, 1,960 victims of murder in the United States were under the age of 18. Of these, 43 victims (2 percent) were school-associated deaths (Lawrence, 2009; Snyder and Sickmund, 1999). Of 1,748 total homicides in the 2006–2007 school year, 30 (1.7 percent) were recorded as school homicides (Dinkes, Kemp, and Baum, 2009).

In summary, self-reports of crime and delinquency are a valuable source of information to researchers. Research projects with exploratory, descriptive, and/or experimental study objectives benefit from the use of self-report data. Descriptions of different types of delinquents and the development of useful intervention strategies for delinquency prevention have been assisted greatly by the use of self-reports. The broad application of self-reports in virtually every facet of criminology and criminal justice suggests the long-term application of this data collection method.

Violence and Nonviolence: Career Escalation?

How much violent crime is committed by juveniles? Are juveniles likely to escalate to more serious offenses during their youthful years as they become more deeply involved in delinquent conduct? Are certain kinds of juvenile offenders more or less susceptible to intervention programs and treatments as means of reducing or eliminating their propensity to engage in delinquent conduct? Are schools new battle zones for gang warfare and other forms of violence? Certainly, the media have heightened our awareness about the presence—and violence—of youth gangs in various cities (Crooks et al., 2007). Startling information about extensive drug and alcohol use among juveniles is frequently broadcasted or reported (West, 2005). Is there currently an unstoppable juvenile crime wave throughout the United States?

School Violence

Violence among schoolchildren in the United States has received increased attention in recent years and is a serious problem in other countries as well. The media suggest that school violence is pervasive (Slater, Hayes, and Ford, 2007). In Miami, Florida, for example, high-school students have reported both serious and frequent victimization. In many of these reports, dangerous weapons, such as firearms, were used to effect the victimization (Schexnayder, 2008). There are many explanations for school violence, ranging from psychological explanations (attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD) to sociological (peer group association or need for group recognition) to biological (glandular malfunction) (Bratina, 2008; Hinduja, Patchin, and Lippman, 2008).

Fortunately, school violence is seldom fatal. In 2007, students ranging in age from 12 to 18 were victims of about 235,000 incidents of nonfatal, serious, violent crimes in their schools. Outside of school, 720,000 similar incidents involved this age group. During the period from 2003 to 2007, more than half (56 percent) of all public schools reported either a serious violent crime (e.g., murder or rape), or a less-serious violent crimes (e.g., assault) to the police (OJJDP, 2007). In many instances, bullying behavior has also been reported as school violence, although psychological rather than physical harm is more often inflicted through bullying behavior compared with assaultive behavior that might result in student injuries (Brewer, 2008; Dussich and Maekoya, 2007; Estell, Farmer, and Cairns, 2007).

Focus on Delinquency

It happened on January 19, 2007. John Odgren, 16, a student at Lincoln–Sudbury Regional High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, followed a fellow student, James Alenson, 15, into the school bathroom. Odgren was a special needs student who did not know Alenson, had never been teased by Alenson, had never been shunned by Alenson, and didn’t even know his name. When inside the bathroom with Alenson, Odgren attacked Alenson with a sharp knife, slashing his throat and stabbing him through the heart and abdomen. Alenson stumbled into the hallway and collapsed. A third student in one of the bathroom stalls heard everything, including Alenson saying, “What are you doing? You are hurting me.” The student followed Odgren into the hallway, where he saw Odgren stoop over Alenson and check his pulse. Odgren turned, saw the other student, and then exclaimed, “I did it. I just snapped. I don’t know why.” Following his arrest by police, Odgren appeared in a Middlesex Superior Court and pleaded not guilty to first-degree murder. Odgren was ordered to a state hospital for a 20-day evaluation. In the meantime, it was learned that Odgren was prone to explosive episodes, was verbally abusive, and at times became physically aggressive against his parents, teachers, and specialists. He had been formerly placed in an alternative school, Caldwell Alternative School, in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in 2002. At age 12, Odgren had been diagnosed as a highly intelligent but troubled preadolescent with poor social skills. He had a hyperactivity disorder and Asperger’s disorder, a mild form of autism. Several specialists familiar with Asperger’s disorder claim that those with such a condition are no more prone toward violence than others. While at the alternative school, Odgren was suspended three times for undisclosed explosive episodes including physical aggression. Officials refused to elaborate, citing student confidentiality. In the meantime, Odgren’s parents told the media that their son needed training in social skills but never received such training. Prosecutors sought to try Odgren on first-degree murder charges as an adult. Should the juvenile court have jurisdiction over this case? Who is to blame for Alenson’s death? Are Massachusetts authorities at fault for placing a disturbed youth such as Odgren in a normal high-school environment where he could pose a threat to others?

Source: Adapted from Jesse Harlan Alderman (2007, March 6), “Massachusetts Stabbing Victim Chosen Randomly,” Boston.com (available at http://www.boston.com/news/nation/articles/2007/03/06/mass_stabbing_victim_chosen_randomly/).

A general response to school violence throughout the United States has led to the development of several aggressive policy changes. School systems have trained teachers and students how to react in ways that will rapidly contain potentially serious school violence. Special response police forces are being trained to be more effective in providing ancillary support for school administrators and staff. Intensive prevention training for all involved parties, after-school academic enrichment programs, enforcement of and punishment for firearms possession and drug use/sales on campus, and developing a standardized system of early detection and assessment of at-risk students are being implemented on a national basis (Pires and Jenkins, 2007). Evidence of the success of these initiatives is the dramatic reduction in school violence between 1996 and 2007. One of the contributing factors to this decline has been the establishment of a zero-tolerance policy in many school systems, which imposes more stringent penalties on youthful offenders who bring dangerous weapons to their schools (Schexnayder, 2008).

At-Risk Youth and the Pittsburgh Youth Study

Who are at-risk youth? At-risk youth are often those who suffer from one or more disadvantages, such as lower socioeconomic status, dysfunctional family conditions, poor school performance, learning or language disabilities, negative peer influences, and/or low self-esteem (Abbott-Chapman, Denholm, and Wyld, 2007; Owens-Sabir, 2007). It is difficult to forecast which youth will become delinquent and which will not. For many decades, researchers have attempted to profile so-called at-risk youth by assigning to them various characteristics that seem to be associated with hard-core delinquents (Busseri, Willoughby, and Chalmers, 2007). In 1986, investigators began a longitudinal study of 1,517 inner-city boys from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Pittsburgh Youth Study followed three samples of boys for over a decade to determine how and why boys became involved in delinquent and other problem behaviors (Browning and Loeber, 1999, p. 1). Boys were randomly selected from the first, fourth, and seventh grades and then tracked over time.

Eventually, three developmental pathways were defined that display progressively more serious problem behaviors. The first pathway, authority conflict, involves youth who exhibit stubbornness before age 12 and then they move on to defiance and avoidance of authority. The second pathway, covert, includes minor covert acts, such as lying, followed by property damage and moderately serious delinquency and then serious delinquency. The third pathway, overt, starts with minor aggression, followed by fighting and violence. Risk factors identified and associated with delinquency among the Pittsburgh youth include impulsivity; IQ; personality; forces in an individual’s environment, including parents, siblings, and peers; and factors related to family, school, and neighborhood (Bowman, Prelow, and Weaver, 2007).

Specifically, at-risk youth in the Pittsburgh Youth Study tended to have greater impulsivity, lower IQ, and a lower threshold for experiencing negative emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and anger. These youth were also more inclined to be involved in thrill-seeking and acting without caution. Family risk factors included poor supervision by parents, family receipt of public assistance (welfare), and lower socioeconomic status. The greatest demographic variable associated with delinquency was having a broken family. Living in a bad neighborhood doubled the risk for delinquency.

These aggregate data are interesting, but they fail to enable researchers to forecast with accuracy which youth will become delinquent and which ones will not. Maybe this is too much to ask without more definitive criteria for identifying potential juvenile offenders. Nevertheless, a profile of at-risk youth has been generated to the extent that various intervention programs can be attempted in certain jurisdictions. The theory is that if at-risk youth can be identified according to proven prior characteristics derived from delinquency research, then perhaps one or more interventions can be attempted with some or all of those youth who are at risk. Many interventions attempted are flawed in different ways, however. Thus, much more research is needed to establish truly effective interventions that make a difference in affecting a youth’s future behavior (Case, 2007).

Juvenile courts have utilized various types of interventions involving at-risk youth (Barnes, 2005). Since the mid-1970s, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has sought to focus national attention on abused and neglected children. Youth placed in foster care and/or suffering from various forms of sexual or physical abuse in their families are considered to be at-risk and in need of special treatment from various social services. It has been found, for instance, that one strategy for assisting at-risk youth is to educate family and juvenile court judges in ways to improve their court practices (Adoption and Foster Care Analysis and Reporting System, 2008). The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges has also established the Permanency Planning for Children Department, with 17 Model Courts in at least 16 states. These Model Courts have implemented a number of programs to deal with at-risk youth and their families. Such programs can easily be replicated in other jurisdictions. For instance, court calendars are generated to ensure that judicial decision makers are assigned to specific dependency cases and will remain on those cases until the children involved achieve permanence, either by being safely reunited with their families or by being placed in permanent adoptive homes. Family group conferencing and mediation programs are also incorporated into several of these Model Court jurisdictions. Proper handling of cases involving these types of at-risk youth tends to decrease the likelihood that placed youth will become delinquent in the future. Family group conferencing has been extended to many states, including Indiana (McGarrell and Kroovand-Hipple, 2007).

Gang Violence

Juvenile justice professionals are interested in the increased incidence of gang formation and membership behavior. Gangs and the gang phenomenon are widespread throughout the United States. Street gangs are evident in suburban and rural communities as well as in major urban centers. The National Gang Center reported that 32 percent of all communities experienced gang problems in 2008 (Egley, Howell, and Moore, 2010).

Generally, gangs tend to organize along racial or ethnic lines, often for mutual protection against other gangs. The gang problem in the United States is increasing, and despite many intervention and prevention efforts, youth gangs have proliferated since 1980 (Taylor et al., 2008). In 1980, for instance, there were 2,000 gangs in 286 jurisdictions, with over 100,000 gang members. By 2007, there were more than 34,500 gangs in 5,380 jurisdictions, with over 1.5 million gang members (OJJDP, 2007). While remaining both widespread and prevalent, the number of active gangs and gang members reportedly declined during the period from 2007 to 2008. In 2008, a total of 27,990 gangs and 774,000 gang members were estimated to be active. For the period from 2002 to 2008, however, these figures represent a 28 percent increase in the number of gangs and a six percent increase in gang members (Egley, Howell, and Moore, 2010).

While national trend data are not definitive concerning female gang members and the types of offenses they commit, independent investigations of selected jurisdictions suggest that the number of female gangs in the United States is also increasing (Graves, 2007). About eight percent of all gang members are female, and studies suggest that they join gangs for the same reasons males join gangs but generally leave gangs at an earlier age than males (Esbensen et al., 2008).

Kids Who Kill

Juveniles who commit homicide are relatively rare (Haynie, Steffensmeier, and Bell, 2007). Of the 17,000 homicide offenders reported by the UCR in 2007, only 1,200 (7 percent) of these involved juveniles under age 18 (OJJDP, 2007). Some juveniles begin their careers of gang violence, including murder and attempted murder, as early as age six. An increasing amount of youth violence, including homicide, is linked to gang membership (Marriott, 2007). Actually, according to the National Youth Gang Survey Analysis (National Gang Center, n.d.), two cities, Los Angeles and Chicago, are responsible for approximately one-third of the gang-related murders.

Apart from gang-related murders, many youth kill one or more of their family members, such as their mothers or fathers. Studies of youth who kill their parents show that these youth are often severely physically or sexually abused and that they are particularly sensitive to stressors in the home environment. Many juvenile murderers have chemical dependencies for which they require treatment. Juvenile murderers also exhibit greater psychotic and conduct disorder symptoms compared with other types of juvenile offenders (Titterington and Grundies, 2007).

Some murders committed by juveniles are sexually motivated and occur when victims threaten to tell others, but even something as specific as sexually motivated juvenile murder is misunderstood by the public (Hensley, Tallichet, and Singer, 2005). A wide variety of reasons is provided for explaining or rationalizing adolescent murders, although any excuse is rarely accepted as mitigating. One frequently cited reason for gang violence was that it was an expected part of gang initiation rites. Most often cited as mitigating factors in juvenile homicides are troubled family histories and social backgrounds; psychological disturbances; mental retardation; indigence; and substance abuse. Treatments often include psychotherapy, psychiatric hospitalization, institutional placement, and psychopharmacological agents (Johnson, 2005; Marriott, 2007).

Trends in Juvenile Violence

Violence committed by juveniles increased between the late 1980s and early 1990s (see Figure 2.1). Subsequently, juvenile violence has declined (Belshaw and Lanham, 2008). In 2008, “the juvenile murder arrest rate was 3.8 arrests per 100,000 youth between the ages of 10 and 17” (Puzzanchera, 2009, p. 1). This is 74 percent less than the 14.4 arrests per 100,000 in 1993. In part, this decline may be one indication that various youth crime intervention programs are working (Matrix Research and Consultancy, 2007).

One such initiative is Project Safe Neighborhoods, a collaborative effort between probation, parole, and other community-based agencies and law enforcement to provide training and technical assistance related to supervising juvenile offenders and preventing them from acquiring and using firearms (Bynum, 2005; Decker, 2005; Project Safe Neighborhoods, 2005). One concomitant of youth violence is access to firearms, and the impact of gun violence is especially strong for juveniles and young adults (Lewis et al., 2007). In 2004, there were 1,500 murder victims under the age of 18. This is nearly 50 percent lower than the peak year of 1993, when there were 2,900 juvenile deaths. About half of these deaths were from firearms. Various policies and laws have been implemented to intervene in gun-related violence (McDevitt, 2005). Sources of illegal guns are increasingly interrupted; penalties have been increased for illegal possession and carrying of guns; and persons who supply at-risk youth with firearms for violence (e.g., probationers, gang members, and drug traffickers) are being prosecuted more aggressively. Simultaneously, programs are in place to treat and deal with those youthful offenders who have mental disorders and/or substance abuse problems (Bowman, 2005).

Career Escalation

Do status offenders progress to more serious offending, such as juvenile delinquency? Do juvenile delinquents become adult offenders? This phenomenon is known as career escalation. Presently, no one knows for sure whether status offenders or delinquents progress toward more serious offending as they get older. This generalization applies to both male and female offenders. One problem is that different pathways, or developmental sequences over the term of adolescence, are associated with serious, chronic, and violent offenders (Kuntsche et al., 2007). Thus, a single trajectory or pathway cannot be used as a general forecast of career escalation, whenever it occurs. Furthermore, career escalation among delinquent youth may suggest that situational factors, such as whether youth come from abusive families and where drug and/or alcohol dependencies are evident, are more significant predictors of future, more serious offending rather than pathways to the onset of delinquent offending.

With little more information than whether youth commit particular status or delinquent acts at particular ages, long-term predictions of future career escalation among these juveniles are simply unwarranted. Arrest rates for juvenile offenders change drastically within short-term cycles of three years. Also, there are different varieties of juvenile violence (McGarrell, 2005). About half of all juvenile violence is gang-related, for example, and this type of violence is quite different from the violence exhibited by youth who kill their parents or other youth out of anger or frustration. In fact, researchers have been aware of these different types of violence and their origins for several decades (Lansford et al., 2007).

Interest in career escalation among juveniles heightened during the 1970s and 1980s, when delinquency and crime increased appreciably. Statistical correlations between rising crime and delinquency rates and the amount of status and delinquent offending led to the tentative conclusion that career escalation was occurring. In retrospect, and after a closer examination of adult recidivists, a clear pattern of career escalation among juvenile offenders has not been revealed.

More than any other factor, domestic violence and an abusive family environment seem to be critical determinants of whether certain youth from such families will become chronic and persistent offenders. When recurrent maltreatment persists, Lemmon and Verrecchia (2009) found that there is a relationship between that maltreatment and chronic and violent delinquent behavior in a sample of youth at-risk. By contrast, child placement services seem to decrease violent and persistent offending (Lemmon and Verrecchia, 2009). These findings suggest that intervention and placement may reduce the likelihood of further violent offending among youth who are subjected to continued maltreatment.

Female Versus Male Delinquency: Cataloging the Differences

In 2007, girls were involved in 30 percent of all juvenile arrests. However, of the total number of juveniles held in either public or private juvenile secure facilities in that year, approximately 15 percent of these detainees were female (American Correctional Association, 2007). Also, about 15 percent of all youth in juvenile community correctional programs were female (American Correctional Association, 2007). These figures indicate that female juvenile arrestees are committed to secure facilities at a lower rate than male juveniles and that females are also returned to their communities more frequently after serving shorter secure confinement terms (OJJDP, 2007).

Profiling Female Juvenile Offenders

Are there significant differences between male and female juvenile offenders? Yes. Female juvenile offenders tend to be involved to a greater degree in less-serious types of offending, including runaway behavior, curfew violations, unruly behavior, larceny-theft, and drug abuse. In fact, juvenile female offenders of the 1990s and 2000s appeared to be similar in demographic characteristics compared to female juvenile offenders of the 1980s. Survey data show that many female juveniles have prior histories of being sexually or physically abused, come from a single-parent home, and lack appropriate social and work-related skills (Mellins et al., 2007).

Evidence indicates, however, that growing numbers of female juveniles are entering the juvenile justice system annually, at younger ages, and for more violent offending (Morris and Gibson, 2008). Over 60 percent of all female juveniles charged with juvenile delinquency in 2007 were under age 16. Additionally, increasing numbers of female juveniles are being transferred to criminal courts for prosecution as adult offenders. Approximately 40 percent of all transferred female juvenile cases involved a violent offense as the most serious charge. Several important risk factors have been identified and associated with higher incidences of female offending (Graves, 2007). These include:

1. Alcohol and/or drug abuse.

2. Various antisocial behaviors.


Police officer escorts a girl who has been apprehended into a detention unit.

(© Mikael Karlsson/Alamy)

3. African-American background.

4. Depression or history of depression.

5. History of parental violence.

6. Lower socioeconomic status.

7. Coming from a single-parent home.

8. Inability to engage in problem solving.

9. Poor interpersonal relations with others.

Trends in Female Juvenile Offending

In the past two decades, the pattern of female delinquent offending compared with male delinquent offending has been changing. Between 2000 and 2007, there was a substantial increase in the number of female juvenile arrestees compared with their male counterparts. In 2000, for instance, only about 15 percent of all juvenile arrestees were female. By 2007, however, this figure had risen to over 30 percent. Furthermore, arrests of female juveniles for violent offenses increased during the period from 2000 to 2007. About 25 percent of all female arrestees in 2007 were involved in violent crimes, compared with only 15 percent of all juvenile violent crime arrestees for 2000. One possible explanation is the increased involvement of female juveniles in gangs (Schaffner, 2006).

As the information in Figure 2.2 demonstrates, the number of female juveniles known to be homicide offenders increased from 120 in 1980 to 159 in 1992, and then dropped to 88 in 2006 (compared to 1,340, 2,296, and 1,165, respectively, for male juvenile offenders). Based on these data, females have not been as violent as males. Even as the juvenile arrest rates for violent crimes have decreased, however, the decrease in female arrests has been less than that of males (Table 2.4).

Figure 2.2 Juvenile Homicide Offenders


Source: Adapted from Charles Puzzanchera and Wei Kang (2010). Easy Access to the FBI’s Supplementary Homicide Reports: 1980–2008. (Available at http://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/offenders/qa03102.asp?qaDate=2008 .)

Table 2.4 Percentage Change in Male and Female Juvenile Arrests for Violent Crimes, 1996–2005.

Type Girls Boys
Aggravated assault −5.4% −23.4%
Simple assault +24.0% −4.1%
Violent Crime Index −10.2% −27.9%
All crimes −14.3% −28.7%

Source: Girls Study Group (2008). Violence by Teenage Girls: Trends and Context. Washington, DC: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, p. 4. (Available at http://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/218905.pdf.)

Like their male counterparts, female youth gangs most often form along racial and/or ethnic lines (Valdez, 2007). The most common reason for female juveniles to join gangs is for protection, often from abusive sexual or physical encounters with their fathers at home. Another important reason is simple rebellion against parents. For many female juvenile gang members, their membership gives them status among their peers and enables them to profit in illicit drug activities. It is difficult to estimate the number of girls who are gang members. Conservatively, about 10 percent of all juvenile gang members in the United States today, or about 150,000, are female, but estimates have ranged between 9 and 22 percent, depending upon the survey conducted. Although female gangs commit fewer violent crimes compared with male gangs, 38 percent of female youth gang-offending involves violent crimes, while 37 percent of their offending involves drug offenses. Therefore, female youth gangs should be taken seriously (Graves, 2007). Studies of youth gangs in various jurisdictions, such as Alabama, suggest similar findings (Martin et al., 2008).


Female delinquency seems to be increasing, although experts disagree.

(Courtesy of Dean John Champion)

Is there a new breed of violent juvenile female offender emerging? No. Is female delinquency skyrocketing out of control? No. We do not know whether female juveniles are becoming more violent, although some evidence suggests that they are. We do know that juvenile courts are processing larger numbers of female juveniles and that greater numbers of delinquency adjudications involve girls. As the information in Table 2.4 suggests, while juvenile arrests for both boys and girls decreased from 1996 to 2005, the decrease for girls was less than the decrease for males. In the past, some juvenile court judges acted in a paternalistic manner toward female juveniles, and their offenses were often downgraded or downplayed in seriousness. However, in more recent years, there has been more equitable treatment of female juveniles by the juvenile courts (Graves, 2007).

Myths and Misconceptions: Changing Views of Juvenile Female Offenders

Several variables differentiate males and females in the juvenile justice system. First, males are more likely than females to offend at some point during their adolescence, although self-reports from female juveniles in a nationwide survey in 2007 revealed that 94 percent of them disclosed that they had committed at least one delinquent act (OJJDP, 2007). Traditionally, females who offend during adolescence have been considered to violate sex-role norms. Second, much male offending is property-related, while it is assumed that female delinquency is predominantly sexual. Third, female delinquents seem to come from broken homes at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Therefore, their delinquency is often attributed to deficient family relationships. Fourth, female delinquents are characterized as having greater mental instability and nonrational behavior, whereas male juvenile offenders are characterized as rational, adventurous, and simply testing the bounds of their adolescence.

Two major events triggered the change from a liberal to a conservative approach in juvenile justice throughout the United States. First, states passed legislation in response to public perceptions of increased violent crime among juveniles. Second, status offenses were removed from the jurisdiction of juvenile courts in many states. Greater priority was given to getting tough with juvenile offenders. Regarding female juveniles, Schaffner (2006) has identified three major political–legal periods: (1) the paternalistic period (1960–1967), during which female delinquents were dealt with more severely than males by the juvenile courts “for their own good;” (2) a due process period (1968–1976), which reflected the impact of various legal decisions, such as In re Gault (1967); and (3) a law-and-order period (1977–1980), during which the court adjusted to the new conservatism of the late 1970s. Therefore, presumed changes in the rates in female juvenile offending during these years were more attributable to policy shifts in the treatment of female juveniles rather than actual increases in the rate of female criminality.

As we have seen, however, the nature of female juvenile offending is definitely changing and increasing (Schaffner, 2006). While policy revisions and juvenile court views toward female offenders have probably occurred during the early 2000s, increased female juvenile offending has been observed. At the very least, female delinquency is becoming increasingly similar to male delinquency in a number of respects, and court treatment of male and female juveniles is becoming more equalized (Schaffner, 2006).


Before the juvenile court was established, child savers provided food, shelter, and other services to children who wandered the streets unsupervised. Houses of refuge were established, such as the Western House of Refuge in Rochester, New York. The power of the state in regulating juvenile affairs was established by court decisions such as Ex parte Crouse in 1839, which usurped parental control over unmanageable children.

In Illinois and other states, reform schools were established following the Civil War, when many children were orphaned. Simple vagrancy, begging, or wandering the streets aimlessly were sufficient grounds to commit youth to such facilities, which were notorious for their harsh conditions, strict discipline, and compulsory labor. In 1870, the case of People v. ex rel. O’Connell v. Turner was decided. This case resulted in the successful removal of a juvenile, whose only offense was that he was vagrant and in need of supervision, from an Illinois reform school. In the 1880s, growing numbers of social welfare agencies, such as Hull House, a settlement home operated by Jane Addams in Chicago, were established. During the 1890s, compulsory education was the rule rather than the exception for youth, and Colorado passed the first truancy statute in 1899, thus providing for the compulsory education of juveniles. Other states quickly followed suit and passed similar laws. One function of these laws was to keep children occupied during daytime hours and under the close supervision of school authorities.

The first juvenile court was established in Illinois in 1899. This new type of court was vested with a great deal of power over juvenile affairs, and for many decades, this and similar courts in other jurisdictions functioned like social welfare agencies. Decisions were almost always made on behalf of juveniles and in their best interests, a traditional philosophy rooted in early English jurisprudence called parens patriae. These courts established an assortment of punishments, and they most often imposed such punishments in closed proceedings. Children had no legal standing. Therefore, juvenile rights were never considered as an important issue.

Over the next 60 years, the similarities between juvenile and criminal courts increased. Juvenile courts evolved into due process courts that emulated criminal courts in many ways, and the traditional philosophy of juvenile courts waned. Status offenders and delinquent offenders, as well as children in need of supervision, were within the purview of juvenile courts. In time, the formality of juvenile courts intensified such that these courts became increasingly criminalized. Less-serious juveniles were gradually shifted to social welfare agencies for processing.

Several official and unofficial sources for measuring the nature and extent of delinquency and status offending include the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). Both the UCR and NCVS are flawed in different respects. Other sources of crime and delinquency include the National Juvenile Court Data Archive, The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, the National Youth Survey, and the Monitoring the Future Survey. Some information about delinquency and crime is available through self-reports. Self-reports are considered to be less reliable by authorities, although some experts contend that they disclose hidden delinquency, thus suggesting that more delinquency is committed annually than is officially reported. While delinquency trends and surveys of youth violence have been studied by authorities, the prevalence of career escalation is unclear, and most youth age out of delinquent behavior. School violence, which has captured public attention to a greater degree in recent years, continues, although recent evidence from official reports suggests that it is declining.

Since at-risk youth are more likely to engage in delinquent behavior, researchers attempt to identify characteristics of children who are at risk and to develop early intervention programs to reduce delinquency. Generally, at-risk youth have lower socioeconomic status, lower IQs, lower school achievement; exhibit more learning disabilities and ADHD; and demonstrate antisocial behaviors. Less fully developed cognitive abilities and poor social adjustment are also associated with at-risk youth. Studies of different pathways or developmental sequences leading to different types of offending have achieved some degree of success in recent years.

Gangs and gang violence have also been studied. Although gang interventions have been developed and implemented in recent years, these programs have had varied success in reducing the prevalence of gangs. There were approximately 27,900 gangs in the United States in 2008, with approximately 774,000 members. A small but growing proportion of gangs consists of female juveniles, and arrests of female juveniles have increased from 10 to 25 percent during the period from 2000 to 2007. Gangs offer protection, recognition, esteem, and ways of gaining status that are often unavailable to youth through their schools and other conventional organizations. Like their male counterparts, female gang members seek to meet similar needs by becoming violent and aggressive. While arrests of female youth have increased, the data do not suggest a crime wave of female delinquents. Official figures, however, point to a need for greater attention to girls to provide gender-specific interventions and programs as deterrents to delinquency.

Key Terms

· common law, 42

· shires, 42

· reeve, 42

· chancellors, 42

· chancery courts, 43

· banishment, 43

· transportation, 43

· workhouses, 43

· Bridewell Workhouse, 43

· Poor Laws, 44

· indentured servant system, 44

· indentured servants, 44

· Hospital of Saint Michael, 44

· child savers movement, 45

· child savers, 45

· New York House of Refuge, 45

· Society for the Prevention of Pauperism, 45

· houses of refuge, 45

· reform schools, 46

· Jane Addams, 48

· Act to Regulate the Treatment and Control of Dependent, Neglected, and Delinquent Children, 49

· juvenile courts, 49

· children’s tribunals, 51

· civil tribunals, 51

· Compulsory School Act, 51

· gemeinschaft, 52

· gesellschaft, 52

· sweat shops, 52

· actuarial justice, 56

· Uniform Crime Reports (UCR), 56

· index offenses, 56

· felonies, 56

· misdemeanor, 57

· crime rate, 57

· National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS), 58

· victimization, 58

· incident, 58

· cleared by arrest, 58

· National Juvenile Court Data Archive, 60

· The Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics, 60

· self-report, 61

· self-report information, 61

· hidden delinquency, 61

· National Youth Survey, 61

· Monitoring the Future Survey, 61

· At-risk youth, 67

· gangs, 68

· career escalation, 70

· pathways, 70

Questions for Review

1. What were workhouses and their functions? How did the Poor Laws influence those confined to workhouses?


2. What were houses of refuge and reform schools? Were they successful in accomplishing their objectives? Why, or why not?



3. Who were child savers, and how did the child-saving philosophy influence the subsequent development of juvenile courts?



4. What were the cases of Ex parte Crouse and People ex rel. O’Connell v. Turner? What was their significance for juvenile justice?



5. What was the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, and what was its significance for juvenile courts?



6. What are some important differences between the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) and the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)? What are some strengths and weaknesses of the UCR and NCVS? What are some other sources of information about delinquency and crime? How reliable are these sources?



7. What is self-report information? Is it more or less accurate compared with data reported by the Uniform Crime Reports (UCR) or National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS)? What are several problems that accompany self-report information?



8. Who are at-risk youth, and why do they interest criminal justice professionals? Why are such youth targeted for interventions? What are pathways, and why are they significant in relation to career escalation?


Juvenile Justice System Paper

9. Why is there growing interest in female juvenile gangs? What are some general trends in female juvenile delinquency, and are these trends of interest to authorities?



10. What are some myths and misconceptions about female juveniles? How have these myths and misconceptions influenced social policies relevant to female delinquents? What are some general characteristics of female delinquents?


Internet Connections

Children Now


Drug War Chronicle


Justice Policy Institute


Justice Project


Mercyhurst Civic Institute


National Center for Juvenile Justice


National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges


National Council on Crime and Delinquency


National Gang Center


Office for the Victims of Crime


Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention



The Juvenile Justice System. Delinquency, Processing, and the Law, Seventh Edition

Chapter 2: The History of Juvenile Justice and Origins of the Juvenile Court

ISBN: 9780132764469 Authors: Dean John Champion, Alida V. Merlo, Peter J. Benekos

Copyright © Pearson Education (2013)

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