Adults aren’t the only ones who break the law. Every year, many children and youth come into conflict with the law for a wide variety of reasons, ranging from status offenses that apply only because of age (truancy, possession of alcohol) to criminal offenses (shoplifting, possession of drugs, assault).
How do we address these issues? How should we address them? These are questions that we’ve been struggling with as a society for a long time. Just how long? Guess what year this quote is from:
“We make criminals out of children who are not criminals by treating them as if they were criminals. That ought to be stopped. What we should have, in our system of criminal jurisprudence, is an entirely separate system of courts for children […] who commit offenses which would be criminal in adults. We ought to have a ‘children’s court’ in Chicago, and we ought to have a ‘children’s judge’ who should attend to no other business. We want some place of detention for those children other than a prison.”
In the late 1890s in Chicago, IL a group of social reformers, many of whom were associated with Jane Addams’ Hull House (a provider of community supports and services in the immigrant neighborhoods), decided that something needed to be done for children who were being treated like every other Chicago criminal. For these reformers, though, youth were different. They had the capacity to change and reform. Their environment and circumstances had an impact on their actions. They weren’t grown up yet and shouldn’t be treated like it. So in 1899, Illinois’ legislature established the nation’s first juvenile court in Chicago with the aim of reforming children and acting in their best interests. Similar juvenile courts soon sprung up in major cities across the nation. Nebraska’s first juvenile court was founded in Douglas County (Omaha) in 1959.
Unfortunately, the establishment of juvenile courts hasn’t fully solved the question of how we should treat youth who come into conflict with the law. Outcomes for states’ juvenile justice systems (Nebraska’s included) have been generally abysmal. Juvenile courts haven’t been able to deliver the chance for change and rehabilitation promised in their founding. In a 1960s Supreme Court case, Kent v. United States, one justice called juvenile courts, “the worst of both worlds.” Not only were courts failing to rehabilitate youth (often “treatment” looked similar to punishment), but their due process rights were routinely being violated.
The path for reform is clearer than you might think. In the past ten years, research on juvenile justice systems and the development of the adolescent brain has given us valuable clues about what an effective juvenile justice system might look like. We owe it to our children and our society to build one.