9.4. Invention of Delinquency

Alison S. Burke and Kate McLean

Before the creation of the juvenile court, there was no such thing as “delinquency.” Youth were convicted of crimes, just  as adults were. Just as the concept of “childhood” is socially constructed, scholars also say that the emergence of “juvenile delinquency” was (and is) shaped by social, economic, and religious changes. [1] We can see this in the changing eligibility rules for juvenile court nationwide. In general, juvenile courts oversees cases for youth between the ages of 7 and 17. Seven is often the lower limit of the reaches or protections of the juvenile justice system, while 17 is the  most common upper limit. This means that at 18, youth are considered adults, and are thus tried under the laws of the adult criminal justice system. However, as emerging research continues to suggest that the brain, and its capacity for risk assessment and behavioral control, continues to develop into individual’s 20s, some states have begun raising their upper age limits. For example, in New York and Michigan, youth may enter juvenile court through their 18th year, only “becoming adults” when they are 19; in 2022, Vermont expanded juvenile courts to also serve 19-year-olds. the Oregon Youth Authority houses youth until the age of 25. Similarly, the movement to legislate a minimum age for entry into juvenile court has picked up speed in recent years, with 23 states now stipulating a “floor” for juvenile prosecution (for at least some offenses).

See the Change

While the map linked here is not fully up-to-date, it does allow us to visualize the “social construction of delinquency” by show changes in the minimum, and maximum, ages of juvenile court over time. Drag the slider from 1997 to 2018, for both the upper and lower age tabs. What has happened over time? Are any regional patterns apparent?

After the creation of the first juvenile court in 1899, reformers were worried that restricting the court to only criminal youth would make it function more like an adult criminal court, as opposed to a rehabilitative, treatment-oriented institution. Within a couple of years of its passage, amendments to the Illinois Juvenile Court Act broadened the definition of delinquency to include “incorrigible youth” – children described as unruly and out-of-control [2] The definition of juvenile delinquency was expanded to include status offenses or offenses that are only illegal because of the age of the offender. Examples include: drinking alcohol, running away, ungovernability, truancy (skipping school), and curfew violations. Overall,  the juvenile justice system is responsible for youth who are considered dependent, neglected, incorrigible, delinquent, and/or status offenders.

The purpose of the original juvenile court was to act according to the rehabilitative ideal. As such, it emphasized reform and treatment over retribution and punishment. [3] To this end, terminology in juvenile court is even different, to denote its separation from the adversarial adult processes. To initiate the juvenile court process, a petition is filed “in the welfare of the child” (an “indictment” in the adult criminal process.) The proceedings of juvenile courts are referred to as hearings (instead of trials). Juvenile courts adjudicate youths to be delinquent, rather than convicting them, or finding them guilty of an offense, and juvenile delinquents are given a disposition, instead of a sentence, as in adult criminal courts.

Listen Up

Want to learn more about the punitive turn in juvenile justice, and the real lives it continues to effect? Listen to the Caught, a podcast that features real kids talking “about the moment they collided with law and order, and how it changed them forever.”

  1. Feld, B.C. (1999). Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court. New York: Oxford University Press.
  2. Feld, B.C. (1999). Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court. New York: Oxford University Press.
  3. Feld, B.C. (1999). Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court. New York: Oxford University Press.


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9.4. Invention of Delinquency Copyright © 2019 by Alison S. Burke and Kate McLean is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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