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The Juvenile Justice System: A Brief History

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In the United States, there are two separate but equal justice systems, one for adults and one for those under a certain set age that differs from state to state. Some states rule an adult as anyone 16 or above while others choose 17. Most states choose 18 or above to define an adult, however, there are many cases in which a child can and will be tried as an adult.

Prosecuting a case with a child defendant isn’t really much different than prosecuting a case with an adult; however, the punishments tend to be quite different. If a child is convicted of a crime, the most common sentence is for them to be confined to juvenile hall, which is like a jail, but only for children under a certain age. Some juvenile hall facilities break their wards into groups based on age, while others do not. Juvenile hall is considered to be a very serious place but not as serious as an adult jail. Juvenile hall also has a much stronger emphasis on rehabilitation and counseling than most jails since the belief is that a child is still “recoverable” and has a better chance of becoming a functioning member of society.

While the juvenile court system is very similar to the ones adults use, there are a few safeguards in place to help keep juvenile cases as low profile as possible. First, no court case that involves a juvenile is ever open to the public. The media can report on the goings-on in the case and report the verdict, but they aren’t allowed to ever put cameras in the courtroom or show the child’s face on television, even if they are the one accused and not the victim. Before the trial even starts, the laws in most states require that either a lawyer representing the child or the parent of the child be present before any kind of questioning. The idea behind this rule is that the child might feel coerced or tricked into admitting guilt without the assistance of a parent. In most states, a case involving a juvenile will only be heard by a single judge instead of a jury to help keep the matter as private as possible. Also, juveniles have the option in most jurisdictions to seal their criminal records once they reach the age of 18 and become an adult.

Much of the United States juvenile justice system was copied from international systems, especially that of the French. The ultimate goal of the juvenile justice system in both countries isn’t necessarily punishment, although that is an important part of the proceedings. Instead, the whole system is done with the idea that the child can be reformed and taught to avoid illegal activities in the future. The effectiveness of that system is highly questioned, but many agree it is better than the reforming record of the adult justice system.

As you can see, the juvenile justice system plays an intricate part in society and it is constantly being refined and retooled as the years go by.

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