Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008
A Historical Perspective
In the vision of individualized justice that animated the juvenile courts at the turn of the twentieth century, the court served as a forum where judges could focus on the characteristics of the adolescents before them rather than on the characteristics of the actions committed. In his early writings about the role of the juvenile court, Judge Julian Mack recommended that the court evaluate the physical, mental, genetic, and environmental factors that might be related to juveniles' delinquent behavior. Given this information, the judge must then, as Judge Mack put it, "be able to understand the boys' point of view… willing and patient enough to search out the underlying causes of the trouble."2 The early juvenile court was a social service agency for children and their families,3 and it provided services both to delinquent youth and to those at risk of delinquency.4 The underlying philosophy was that each child's life was malleable, able to develop in either a negative or positive direction.
Keeping the juvenile system separate from the adult system had two express aims.5 One was to keep adolescents from serving sentences in prison with adults, thus preventing their exposure to adult criminal activity and negative role models. The other was to provide them with positive interventions to help them leave delinquency behind, thus keeping their life chances intact.
Juvenile court judges were powerful in the community and were figuratively perceived as parents, directed to make decisions as if the juveniles before them were their own children.6 Courts functioned in this way until they came under critical scrutiny during the 1960s, by which time the courts' resources were severely strained and the ideal of extensive services directed to fulfill each adolescent's needs was usually more a rhetorical goal than a reality.7 In an era of increased concern with individual and civil rights, it also became apparent that the considerable individualized discretion given decision makers in the juvenile court often meant that youths received the "worst of both worlds."8 Juveniles received neither the procedural protections guaranteed adults nor the regenerative and individualized treatments originally promised by the juvenile system.9 Landmark legal cases introduced procedural rights, such as due process, into the juvenile court and turned attention toward the process and consequences of court actions.10
The juvenile court came increasingly to resemble the adult criminal court. Punishment and penal proportionality—matching the severity of punishment to the seriousness of the crime—became accepted as explicit goals.11 Statutory revisions elevated community safety as a priority over individualized interventions, resulting, for example, in more liberal criteria for transferring youth to adult court. Punishment was increasingly recognized as acceptable in the juvenile court because it was believed to deter future delinquent behaviors.12
Certain procedures, such as transfer to adult court, were restructured to allow for broader application of sanctions, and more punitive interventions, such as boot camps, gained widespread popularity. The increased focus on community safety, however, did not completely override the juvenile court's original goal of individualized rehabilitation. The juvenile system, at its core, continued to devote the bulk of its resources to sorting adolescents according to their likelihood to develop into adult criminals and to redirecting each youth toward positive adult adjustment within the bounds of what it could provide.13 Juvenile justice professionals still make a broad array of decisions on an individual- by-individual basis, as several articles in this volume make clear. (For a discussion of decisions about mental health problems, see the article by Thomas Grisso; for decisions about substance use treatment, see the article by Laurie Chassin; and for complexities of transfer decisions, see the article by Jeffrey Fagan.)
To make such determinations effectively, juvenile justice professionals must make well-reasoned judgments about two key issues: the risk of future harm to the community posed by an adolescent and how likely that adolescent is to benefit from interventions. In the next section, we highlight the relation between these two issues and discuss how professionals make such judgments today. We also discuss alternative methods for judging risk and treatment amenability, noting the current debate about their merits and presenting empirical evidence on each. We then go on to discuss how these judgments can be made in a way that better aligns the ideal of individualized justice and the reality of how the system works.