In the United States, the development, implementation, and evolution of juvenile delinquency and juvenile justice were associated with differing political and economic contexts. The justice system began to develop in the early 1800s in response to growing economic inequality and corresponding crime, and juveniles were initially treated in the same manner as adults. As urbanization increased, juvenile crime became a serious problem by the late 1800s, and courts specifically for juveniles were largely established by the 1920s. Focus increased significantly on deterrence rather than punishment, and this focus persists today.

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The Political and Economic Context of Juvenile Delinquency From the 1800s

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The development and implementation of the juvenile court system began in the early 1800s. While some people believe that juvenile crime is a recent phenomenon, “the criminal behavior of young people has been a recurring concern in American cities since at least the 1800s” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 97). Several economic and political factors account for this concern; the first major factor was the Industrial Revolution in 1790. This revolution catalyzed significant wealth accumulation in the United States. Closely correlated with the wealth increase was the population expansion: “Although the size of the United States grew considerably between 1790 and 1820 as a result of land acquisitions, the population increased even more dramatically after 1820” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 96). Thus, while some people in the United States became very wealthy, the vast majority of Americans were very poor: “Although industrialization brought prosperity to some, it was accompanied by growing concern about social unrest and crime” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 96). In addition, major political factors, such as the lack of protection, existed: “There was no safety net to rely on in difficult times. There was no minimum wage, health care plan, social security, or pension program to protect workers’ interests if they lost their jobs, became ill, or became too old to work” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 97).

In terms of addressing juvenile crimes in the early 1800s, juveniles were treated identically to adults, and there were no separate court systems for juvenile delinquents. Specifically, “from the beginning of the colonial period to early 1800s, youths were subject to the same criminal justice process as adults” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 1). Therefore, since youths were subjected to the same process, they were also subjected to the same punishments: “Consequently, children who were apprehended for crimes were tried in the same courts and, when found guilty, were often given the same punishment as adults” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 1). In addition, several children were placed in homes that were designed to transform them into obedient adults, but “Charles Loring Brace, director of the Children’s Aid Society in New York, noted that the harsh punishments and military regimen found in these institutions had failed to transform their residents into law-abiding citizens” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 99). “Placing out” was also attempted; juvenile youths were relocated from the city out to farms in the West and Midwest for work, and numerous organizations began “to promote placing out as the ideal way to deal with problem children” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 99).

During the Progressive Era, which occurred from 1880 to 1920, changes began to occur in the justice system. Two serious problems occurred that resulted in these changes, such as the fact that numerous indigent children living in urban centers “engaged in immoral or illegal behavior that threatened the tranquility of city life” and “the courts were often reluctant to do more than give the culprits a stern lecture” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 112). During this time period, “child savers” emerged, and their goal was to prevent children from becoming criminals in the first place. However, the problem of justice for juveniles persisted, and juvenile courts were eventually established. By 1925, “all but two states had juvenile courts” and they “were successfully implemented, in large measure, because they served a variety of interests” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 117). This development led into the court system that currently exists today for juveniles.

Currently, there is a strong emphasis on deterrence rather than punishment, and several programs exist to help wayward youth. In recent years, when youth become incarcerated in spite of these deterrent programs, rehabilitation programs exist even in these facilities: “Interestingly, although there was a definite shift in many juvenile courts toward deterrence, punishment, and protecting community safety during the 1990s, there has also been increasing evidence of the viability of treatment and rehabilitation in juvenile corrections” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 442). However, some correctional facilities do not have adequate programs, and the programs “fail to provide quality services to youths” (Elrod & Ryder, 2014, p. 442). Therefore, these programs will represent a continuing area of focus for future evolution of the juvenile court system.

From the early 1800s until today, the juvenile system has developed and evolved to meet various political and economic demands. Increased economic inequality played a major role in the flourishing of crime, and that continues to hold true today. Urbanization also played a major role in the development of the juvenile court system, and child savers began to implement the concept of deterrence, a concept that still holds true today.

  • Elrod, P. & Ryder, R. S. (2014). Juvenile Justice: A Social, Historical, and Legal Perspective. (4th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.