Posted: March 18th, 2023

Conceptions and Treatment of Juveniles Over Time

Evolution of Conceptions and Treatment of Juveniles Over Time

The conception that children have unique needs and different levels of developmental maturity than adults do is relatively new. For centuries, children were treated in many ways as if they were nothing but “miniature adults,” particularly when it came to issues of labor and criminal justice. In fact it was not until the around the mid 1800s that that juveniles were given any special consideration in sentencing for crimes they had committed.

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The beginnings of the modern juvenile justice system can be traced back to the “houses of refuge,” or reformatories, that were used to house juvenile offenders in the middle of the 19th century. According to Sutton (1983) “In almost every state the legal and ideological innovations typically associated with the juvenile court (e.g., the extension of legal control over noncriminal children, the denial of due process, and the legalization of the rehabilitative ideal) had occurred before the advent of children’s courts, as a result of earlier legislation establishing juvenile reformatories” (p. 917).

The houses of refuge were essentially the first step towards treating juveniles differently than adults. They were mostly found in the larger cities in the Eastern United States, such as New York, Boston and Philadelphia. Although the houses of refuge were supposed to be designed to reform young delinquents, they were essentially just workhouses that used the children for hard labor and gave them only the minimum that they needed to survive. Despite being called reformatories, there was no real efforts at reform that would compare with the juvenile system today. The refuges were basically a means of removing lower class and immigrant children from the streets — not for the sake of the children, but for the sake of the citizens that felt threatened by them. So basically, the houses of refuge were just a place to stash poor, unwanted and unruly children away from society. As Hobson and Obidah (2002) explain, “Overcrowding, harsh treatment of youths in the institutions, and the continued mixing of deviant and destitute youths as well as the mixing of both juveniles and young adults would be characteristic of the decline and demise of these reformatories”

Although it is undoubtedly unfortunate the way these children were treated, some good did emerge from these institutions. According to Hobson and Obidah (2002) the houses of refuge were the first institutions to incorporate many of the legal factors that comprise the modern juvenile court system. These included separate quarters for housing juvenile offenders away from adult offenders, the rights of due process and a stronger focus on rehabilitation as opposed to retribution. Ultimately, the houses of refuge not only helped to distinguish juveniles from adults, but they also set the wheels in motion for creating a system based on reform rather than punishment.

It was not, however, until 1959 that the first landmark case defining the modern juvenile justice system was tried. The case was Kent v. United States. In 1959, fourteen-year-old Morris a. Kent, Jr., was arrested for several counts of burglary and robbery. The juvenile court judge placed him on probation. Two years later, a woman was raped and robbed by an intruder in her home. Fingerprints taken from the scene matched those provided by Kent in 1959 at the time of his first arrest. He was taken into custody and questioned. Kent faced charges of the crimes committed when he was 14, and rape as an adult. His attorney motioned to dismiss the charges, claiming the waiver that landed him in district court was invalid, since it did not encompass a “full investigation” as dictated by the Juvenile Court Act (Vannella, 2006).

The motion was denied, and Kent was found guilty on the breaking and entering and robbery charges and sentenced to 30 to 90 years. The case was appealed and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit found the waiver and the judge’s waiver order valid, and upheld the convictions. It was appealed again and came before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1966 as Kent v. United States. In a 5-4 decision delivered on March 21, 1966 by Justice Fortas, the Supreme Court reversed the lower courts’ rulings. It found that proper procedure had not been followed when the juvenile court judge waived jurisdiction. Furthermore, whether or not an offender should be tried as an adult could not be determined without some representation on the juvenile’s behalf (Vannella, 2006)

This case essentially changed the way that juvenile cases were handled from then on. However, many of the statements made in the decision foreshadowed a much more important case where juveniles were given many of the due process rights that were already required in adult criminal proceedings. This was the case of Gault v. United States.

This case is an example of a procedural due process violation. In Arizona in 1967, Gerald Gault, a juvenile, had been found guilty of making an obscene phone call. The typical punishment for an adult committing the same offense would have been a $50 fine. But since Gerald was considered a juvenile, he was remanded by the court to the state reform school for a period of up to six years (Oestreicher 2001).

The U.S. Supreme Court held that Gault had been committed to the industrial school without the benefit of procedural due process. According to Oestreicher (2001), “In Gault, the Court held that juveniles are entitled to 1) adequate and timely notice of charges; 2) legal counsel; 3) confrontation and cross-examination of witnesses; and 4) the privilege against self-incrimination. The Gault Court acknowledged that the juvenile court’s founders had insisted upon discarding the ‘apparent rigidities, technicalities, and harshness which they observed in both substantive and procedural criminal law'” (p. 1758)

The impact of the Gault ruling was significant in its broad and liberal application. This decision defined how school officials must respond to students in disciplinary hearings and guaranteed that no student shall be denied personal rights under the Fourteenth Amendment.

This brings up another area in which the treatment and conception of children has changed over time: education. The idea that every child, male and female will graduate high school is relatively new. Before the 1800s, the majority of the nation’s youth expected to enter the workforce at a very early age without much formal schooling. Farm families needed children at home. Working-class and poor families started hiring out their children to factories in the cities during the 1790s.

The primary reason for the beginning of educational reform in Europe was “The Enlightenment” in which the wealthy decided that those who were educated were not only financially superior, but morally superior as well. These factors greatly contributed to the rising emphasis on education in America that occurred in the 1700’s. However, according to Ghershi (2007) “England had academic schools, but mainly for the privileged. All other ‘students’ trained as apprentices, often starting as very young children placed in fosters-ship with a master who taught them the trade or skill they would practice during their lifetime. The first schools in America…were more academically inclined but still limited in content. Basic reading skills and memorization comprised the mainstay of the curriculum, with Greek and Latin for scholars in upper levels” (64-65).

In addition to language studies, a key portion of the curriculum in these schools centered on the teachings of the Bible. It did not matter if all of the students were Christian or not; the Bible was the centerpiece of the program of study. Science, however, became increasingly important due to the plethora of new scientific discoveries that were being made in 1800s. Essentially, schools were completely transformed by the change from a religious society to an industrial one, which caused a massive increase of student attendance as well as a significant change in the content of the lessons. This is when a curriculum resembling the modern school curriculum began to emerge. Science became a prominent subject, as did courses that prepared students for their future occupations. A well-rounded education was finally being seen as a necessary part of childhood development.

Today, education is becoming progressively more about not just the academic interests of the students, but their personal development as well. According to Prestwich, (2004) classes that focus on life skills, access to professional and peer counseling and greater calls for parental involvement have all reshaped the educational system. With juvenile delinquency being such a notable and increasingly violent problem in modern society, 21st century schools are now concerned more with helping kids deal with their personal problems as well as their academic ones. This is quite a difference from the early European schools that focused mainly on elite studies for the rich. However, it is in many ways a reversion back to the days of the early American schools when Bible teachings were prominent. While religion per se is not usually a part of the self-development curricula (unless it is done in a private school), many of the teaching of the Bible are designed to promote character education, and to steer people down a path of success rather than failure. Until recently, schools had steered away from those types of teachings and focused primarily on standardized testing and basic skills. While these things are still a major part of modern education, they now tend to be supplemented by character education as well (Prestwich, 2004).

The modern juvenile court system has headed in a more caring and facilitative in modern times as well. Not only are juveniles afforded more rights since the Kent and Gault cases discussed above, but they are constantly being tested for improved rehabilitation structures such as boot camps, work release programs and a variety of alternative sentencing methods.

It is interesting that as both our educational system and our juvenile justice system are becoming more interested in ‘fixing’ the emotional problems that accompany youth development, there has not really been any marked improvement in delinquent behavior. Then again, the retributive approach was not very successful at producing model citizens either. Essentially, while both the penal and the educational systems have evolved dramatically in terms of structure and practice over the last couple of centuries, they have not really evolved in terms of creating a more educated, less crime-driven youth population.


Ghershi, a. (2007) From the one-room schoolhouse to virtual education: a perspective of what to do while the transition takes place, Distance Learning, 4(3) 64-76

Hopson, R.K. & Obidah, J.E. (2002) When getting tough means getting tougher: Historical and conceptual understandings of juveniles of color sentenced as adults in the United States. Journal of Negro Education, 71(3), 158- 174.

Oestreicher, Jr., S.E. (2001) Toward fundamental fairness in the Kangaroo Courtroom: The due process case against statutes presumptively closing juvenile proceedings. Vanderbilt Law Review. 54(4),1751-1804.

Prestwich, D.L. (2004) Character education in America’s Schools. Journal of Teacher Education, 47(2),139-146

Sutton, J.R. (1983) Social structure, institutions, and the legal status of children in the United States. American Journal of Sociology 88 (5) 915-947.

Vannella, D.M. (2006) Let the jury do the waive: How Appendi v. New Jersey applies to juvenile transfer proceedings. William and Mary Law Review. 48(2),723-770.

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