Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996

The Juvenile Court: Analysis and Recommendations
Carol S. Stevenson Carol S. Larson Lucy Salcido Carter Deanna S. Gomby Donna L. Terman Richard E. Behrman


"In counties having over 500,000 population, the judges of the circuit court shall, at such times as they shall determine, designate one or more of their number, whose duty it shall be to hear all cases coming under this act. A special court room to be designated as the juvenile court room, shall be provided for the hearing of such cases, and the findings of the court shall be entered in a book or books, to be kept for that purpose, and known as the 'Juvenile Record,' and the court may for convenience be called the 'Juvenile Court.'"1

With these words, the Illinois legislature created the first juvenile court in 1899. The legislation contained a comprehensive set of definitions and rules "to regulate the treatment and control of dependent, neglected, and delinquent children." The Illinois legislature further directed that the legislation was to be "liberally construed," with the goal that the "care, custody, and discipline" of these children "shall approximate as nearly as may be that which should be given by [its] parents."2

The concept of a special court, or division of a court, to handle matters related to juveniles spread rapidly throughout the country. By 1907, juvenile court laws had been enacted in 26 states and the District of Columbia.3 Today, some version of a juvenile court or juvenile division exists in all 50 states. These courts are products of state law and vary from state to state in terms of their status and placement within the state's court hierarchy, the types of cases they hear, how they are staffed, their relationship to child welfare and juvenile probation agencies, and the level of resources appropriated to them. (See the article by Rubin in this journal issue.)

Over the past century, the court has been shaped and challenged by a number of factors. First and foremost, juvenile court practice has been formed by state statute. U.S. Supreme Court and state appellate court decisions and federal legislation have had an influence on the court's practice. Social science has also shaped the court: understanding of parent-child bonding has shifted the priorities and the procedures of the court's work with abusive and neglectful families. Knowledge about the effectiveness of various forms of intervention with juvenile offenders has shaped correctional programs and other approaches to addressing the behavior of delinquent youth. As with any institution dealing with human behavior, the juvenile court has been greatly influenced by larger social trends and problems. The violence in American society—on the streets and in the homes—the persistence of child poverty, and the increase in single-parent households all impact the court's day-to-day work.

As the 100th anniversary of the juvenile court approaches, it provides an opportunity to examine the strengths and weaknesses of this special court and to identify opportunities for improvement. The goal of this journal issue is to present a clear description of the court today and to address challenges for the future. It is important to note, however, that this is not a publication about juvenile crime or child abuse; it is about the court's relationship to these important issues. No article in this journal issue questions the need to continue some version of a specialized court to handle some child-related issues.

Although there have been calls to eliminate or greatly curtail the court's jurisdiction over criminal acts committed by juveniles (these proposals are discussed in the article by Ainsworth in this journal issue), there is a wide-spread consensus that a specialized court for some set of child-related matters is necessary. The greatest difference of opinion lies in defining the scope and describing the specifics of the court's jurisdiction.

This analysis has four sections. The first provides an overview of the historical mission of the juvenile court. In the second section, more detail about the court's role in handling delinquency, status offenses (noncriminal misbehavior of juveniles), and child abuse and neglect cases is presented. The third section examines the current status of the court as an institution, and the fourth section discusses the future of the juvenile court.