9.5. Juvenile Justice System

Alison S. Burke and Kate McLean

If you’ve made it this far, you shouldn’t be surprised that there is no uniform system of processing juvenile offenders nationwide. Matters concerning minors who break the law are left to the discretion of individual states and their legislative bodies. States have different priorities, and legislators enact new laws and revise legislation according to their own needs at any given time. Although every state operates independently, they do sometimes manifest common trends and respond to certain issues in a similar manner. For example, the increasing fear of youth violence in the 1990s precipitated more specific and punitive legislation in almost every state. [1] Some states with very specific and real gang problems devised targeted gang suppression laws and legislation, while other states did not. The fear of youth crime led states to create mandatory minimum legislation (like Act 33 laws in Pennsylvania), waiver and transfer laws, and zero tolerance policies.

Paradoxically, the rehabilitative mission of juvenile courts was historically used to deny juvenile offenders access to the due process rights enjoyed by their adult criminal counterparts. In other words, it was assumed that juveniles did not need such protections (like access to a lawyer, or the right to decline self-incriminating testimony), because juvenile court proceedings were less adversarial, and were meant to reflect “the best interest” of the child. However, these assumptions began to change in the 1960s, during the larger “due process revolution” happen in U.S. courts. Between 1966 and 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court verified an array of major due process rights for juvenile offenders (with some key cases reviewed in the next section.) Of course, in the decades following this movement, the punitive turn in criminal justice resulted in the waiver of increasingly younger juvenile offenders into adult criminal court.

  1. Feld, B.C. (2003). The Politics of Race and Juvenile Justice: The ‘Due Process Revolution’ and the Conservative Reaction. Justice Quarterly 20:765-800.


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