Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996
What was unique about the juvenile court and set it apart from other courts that had tried children's cases in earlier periods of American history was not its philosophy of protecting children from the rigors of the criminal justice system. That philosophy had long been adopted by earlier institutions, if not fully implemented. And, as unfair and impersonal as the criminal justice process was for children in the inferior criminal courts, the available historical evidence does not support the view that the juvenile court acts were directed at curing that evil.
Similarly, the focus of juvenile court procedures on an assessment of character to the detriment of adjudicating the facts of delinquent behavior was not a novelty introduced by the juvenile court. It had been common practice in the nineteenth century in Illinois and other states where a commitment to a juvenile facility was conditioned on a judicial determination of fitness and character, rather than guilt or innocence.
The parens patriae justification for juvenile court procedures that ignored legal formalities was early recognized to be weak and fragile. Arguments to support this theory failed to acknowledge that parens patriae had never been applied to enforce penal law. Furthermore, it was used as a justification for state power without implying anything about the procedures to be followed in exercising that power.
What was truly new in the juvenile court was the development of a personal rapport between the judge and child before the court. This innovation of the juvenile court faded when Ben B. Lindsey's tenure on the Denver juvenile court bench concluded. It diminished further as the responsibility for rehabilitating the children who came before the court passed from the judiciary into the hands of mental health professionals. From then on, the juvenile court became purely a court of law. Inevitably, later statutes and case law would demand that it act like a court of law.