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The historical background of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (1974)

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The authorities of America considered the problem of juvenile delinquency as an intimidating phenomenon hampering sound social development at the end of the 19th century. “Juvenile delinquency is defined as the antisocial behavior of a minor, not more than 18 years of age, which is in violation of the general welfare of people in a larger society. Juvenile justice-state-sanctioned social reforms for children accused and found guilty of crime-seeks to address this antisocial behavior and has a long history in the United States” (Span, 2002). 

The Illinois Court Act signed in 1899 created a legal basis for juvenile delinquency prevention. Instead of the traditional legal measures aimed at restoring the relations violated by the crime, various members of the public based on the ideals of psychology and social sciences proposed a completely different approach. Since that time, the juvenile delinquent, along with children deprived of proper care, fell into the area of exclusive care and upbringing, which should have changed moral motivation and would have prevented adolescents from becoming a professional criminal. This concept has found a wide response in different countries, raising optimistic hopes for the reduction, and possibly of the complete eradication of juvenile delinquency. 

It is relevant to mention that throughout history, in criminal law there was no distinction between adolescents and adults. Children were often detained in prisons along with adult criminals, where they were subjected to corporal punishment and torture, and the death penalty was a frequent measure. Therefore, the introduction of several models in terms of the discussed act may solve the problem of juvenile delinquency. The recovery model, previously used only in relation to adult offenders, considers an adolescent as a subject who can and should be held accountable for their actions, but it is relevant to consider his environment. “A widening ‘generation gap’ within the family, intensification of competition at school, and emergence of youth subcultures also contribute to a high level of stress and problematic behavior among adolescents” (Bao & Haas, 2009). The model is based on the need for punishment for a crime, compensation for harm, but, at the same time, limiting the liability of an adolescent and applying to him additional social methods of influence. The rehabilitation model of criminal justice is based on the fact that juvenile offenders cannot be fully responsible for their actions due to social factors and individual characteristics. This is the classic model of Western juvenile criminal justice. Well-being and rehabilitation of the juvenile offender are dominant over the implementation of harsh criminal punishment. Therefore, these models focused on eradication of juvenile delinquency. 

The court for juveniles established in Chicago, Cook County, in 1899, initiated the process of the governmental policies against the juvenile delinquency. The creation of this court is a symbol of the history of juvenile justice. The main task of the court was to rehabilitate and re-socialize juvenile delinquency. The children or adolescents were accused of violation of public order, school absenteeism, unethical behavior and so on. The practices of prevention were also implemented, such as the supervision of minors, sending juvenile offenders to vocational schools and correctional institutions. Later, the Illinois Court Act was accepted by lawmakers in other states as a model for juvenile delinquency prevention. 

With the course of time, the juvenile justice system has undergone many changes and in the 21st century, this policy is also developing. The political forces try to answer fundamental questions about the causes and remedies for potential delinquents. In the medical and social researches, it is possible to find the roots of juvenile delinquency (Tweed, Bhatt, Dooley, Spindler, Douglas & Viljoen, 2011; Wood, 2015). Currently, the focus is on the effectiveness of correction rather than imprisonment. After more than a century of history of juvenile justice in the United States, there are still no clear answers to questions concerning the reasons and means of dealing with crimes committed by minors. 

Nevertheless, numerous attempts to transform the juvenile justice system resulted in the separation of juvenile justice from the common judicial system. Thus, a number of politicians argue that it is necessary to use alternatives to criminal punishment in juvenile cases. Over the past few years, many juvenile correctional facilities have been closed in the United States, which undoubtedly affected the probation period for the prevailing number of cases. For example, in 2009, a juvenile court in the United States considered 1,504,144 cases. Only 9% of the adolescent offenders were sentenced to correctional facilities and 36% of offenders were sentenced to probation, while the rest of them received instructions that their cases should be considered outside the criminal system (Finklea, 2012). 

Recent studies show that the level of recidivism among juveniles is higher for those who were imprisoned.  For example, Texas shows 85 cases of recidivism per 100 juveniles who were imprisoned for 5 years, and California reflects 82 of such cases. The current juvenile justice system in America deviated so far from its original mission of rehabilitation that the existence of correctional institutions does more harm than good. For example, a group of experts appointed by the governor of the state of New York to conduct a thorough review of juvenile correctional facilities conditions and their findings indicated the lack of adequate medical care, a low level of educational services, and ill-treatment of minors (Greenwood, 2009). 

Thus, it is relevant to implement correctional and preventive measures to stop the process of juvenile delinquency expansion.  The idea of ​​implementing alternative approaches to criminal prosecution of minors (counseling, social work, restorative justice programs) is becoming increasingly popular among politicians and the public (New York State Juvenile Delinquency Prevention Program). 

The implementation of diversion programs changed the situation to some extent. These programs are based on the assumption that the juvenile justice system is stigmatizing young people and may do more harm than good. In the 1960s and early 1970s, this idea became popular when there was an increase in crime level and growing attention to civil rights issues, including children’s rights. This affected the key decisions of the US Supreme Court for Minors, which limited judicial sentencing and gave the accused juveniles more rights in the area of ​​their legal protection. In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice called for a focus on the poor treatment of juvenile offenders. 

“In 1974, Congress passed the first comprehensive piece of juvenile justice legislation, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The JJDPA had three main components: it created a set of institutions within the federal government that was dedicated to coordinating and administering federal juvenile justice efforts; it established grant programs to assist the states with setting up and running their juvenile justice systems; and it promulgated core mandates that states had to adhere to in order to be eligible to receive grant funding” (Finklea, 2012). 

Therefore, the attention of this document considered the establishment of special controlling institutions, grants, and programs oriented on eradication of juvenile delinquency. This approach has been criticized as vague and controversial due to the lack of clear criteria for the selection of offenders whose faults can be considered out of court. Moreover, the diversion programs seemed to be ineffective. Being the objects of such programs, juvenile delinquents became the objects of close observation by the local community, although if they had gone to the trial, they could even have avoided the sanctions of the court due to the insignificance of their offense. According to some researchers, the juvenile offenders who participated in these programs showed a higher level of recidivism compared with those who did not participate in them (Mann & Reynolds, 2006). Due to the fact that such programs did not show any effectiveness, the US government had to look for other methods to create an effective juvenile justice system.

In general, the overwhelming majority of approaches aimed at reducing the level of juvenile delinquency and recidivism are not scientifically based. Moreover, these approaches are more likely to exacerbate the craving for criminal behavior among minors, rather than being rehabilitative. Such programs include probation, imprisonment, transfer of minors to the general criminal system, correctional camps and so on. On the contrary, new rehabilitation or behavioral approaches to criminal behavior among juveniles must be rigorously tested in practice before implementing it into the juvenile justice system. The researcher claims that there is a common position among psychologists and criminologists regarding the evidence-based programs (Greenwood, 2009).

Further amendments to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (1974) introduced other sanctions and new programs involving funding. In the 80s and 90s, these acts added more punitive measures. The philosophical reconsideration of the Act moved to the criminal punishment of the offenders.  Currently, in the 2000s, the policy is developing in two main directions: rehabilitation or accountability of the offenders, the value of grants and their role in juvenile delinquency prevention.  

 “Usually, juvenile delinquency has been treated as a concrete social problem, a worrying side effect of “grand processes” of modernization (above all, industrialization and urbanization) in the West. In particular, the damage these processes are believed to have caused to traditional structures of authority–that is, the family and the apprenticeship system–has been blamed for the growth of uncontrolled gangs of young people on the streets of major cities from the early nineteenth century onward” (Ellis, 2011). 

The evolution of juvenile justice in the United States

The evolution of juvenile justice in the United States, its organization and activities the interaction between judicial and trustee activities involving a growing number of government bodies and institutions, as well as various civil society institutions dealing with adolescents’ issues in this system, is under consideration of this paper. These points create a favorable background for further study of the Act in focus. The current situation in the US in the field of juvenile justice demonstrates the diversity of approaches to this problem in different states. In some of them, juvenile justice works independently or is managed by a social service (the Social Service Agency, a service for working with family and children), or probation services. In the case of an offense, adolescents fall under consideration of a juvenile court or apply informal consideration of the circumstances related to a particular offense to them and subject to the programs used to work with adolescents in the community to instill in them an interest in any occupation or hobby. In addition, in several states, there are special courts with the participation of juries for juveniles, which also develop a probation service and the individual work plan with a juvenile offender. 

But there are some states, where provisions are fixed by law or certain cases are transferred to the ordinary criminal court. If a case of an adolescent is transferred to a criminal court for adults, the informal consideration of the circumstances of the case, attempts at reconciliation with the victim, reparation (according to the concept of restorative justice), as well as correctional work, the results of which decide on the possible transfer of such a case to the court for adults.

 At the same time, the probation period can be “open”, and a teenager can be placed in a special institution at the place of residence, he may have to visit rehabilitation institutions, such as care centers, seminars, and training and be involved in other activities. In accordance with the prominent researchers in this field, the United States make a special emphasis on working with juveniles in conflict with the law in terms of special psychosocial programs for adolescents (Mann & Reynolds, 2006). Since the 1960s, there has been a tendency towards a convergence of juvenile justice with the general criminal justice. There are also supporters offering a complete integration of the US juvenile justice in the context of the general criminal justice system (Hoffman, Knox & Cohen, 2011). 

From the very beginning of the juvenile system development, the US authorities decided to transfer cases involving serious crimes to the adult court. In 1992-1997, 44 states followed this tendency. Other states lowered the age of the criminals. Thus, in Indiana state since 1997, some juvenile cases from the age of 10 could be considered in the ordinary state court. Therefore, it is evident the juvenile justice system in the United States is under a constant development.

According to experts, the mechanisms for transferring cases to the general courts reflect the victory of the strict and non-compromising tendency of punishment over the humane approach to the adolescent criminals. At the same time, there is a tendency to toughen juvenile courts. First, these courts concentrate on the criteria determining the severity of crimes rather than the causes and circumstances of its commitment. These conditions cause longer sentencing and even the death penalty.  

In the United States, since the end of the 1980s, there has been a rule that a significant proportion of adolescent cases could be transferred to the jurisdiction of ordinary criminal courts.  Some researchers point out three main trends that will determine the future of juvenile justice in the United States: 1) the abolition of juvenile justice; 2) the development of micro-community services as an alternative to criminal justice institutions; 3) the use of mixed sentences for juvenile delinquents (Farrington & Welsh, 2007). 

Moreover, these trends are evident not only in the discussions of specialists and the public but also in various projects. For example, there is a movement for the abolition of juvenile justice or abolitionism and its representatives argue that the term a “correctional institution” hides the usual penal institution that reflects its punitive nature. Justice programs based on the idea of ​​micro-community services are becoming more common in a number of states. The main argument in favor of such work is the need to avoid revenge, especially since the long period of dominance of the restrictive approach did not lead to an improvement in the situation of juvenile crime. 

As a part of this approach, a crime committed by a teenager is considered as a reaction to dissatisfaction with the environment, therefore, it is relevant to take into account the influence of the environment on the young criminals. Proponents of this strategy suggest organizing the operation of the micro-community according to the intensive probation (counseling families, adolescents, the creation of leisure centers, motivation and development of school communities) (Morrissey & Werner-Wilson, 2005).

 Of course, there are also disputes regarding the assessment of the cost of such programs. The opponents of this approach claim that it is relevant to concentrate on the behavior of the American youth and focus juvenile justice not only on rehabilitation but also, and even more, on punishment. The involvement of professionals from different fields facilitates the process of juvenile delinquency prevention. “Social workers can play a vital role in the delinquency prevention process. Social workers can identify, assess, and serve children at risk of juvenile delinquency by working to stabilize the educational experiences of highly mobile children, enhance the learning environment for children identified with an emotional or behavioral disorder, and combat the devastating effects of child abuse and neglect” (Mann & Reynolds, 2006). 

In the 90s, some changes occurred. The tendency of the introduction of the mixed sentence became effective. It came into effect in the late 1990s in 18 states. The researchers outline three types of mixed sentences, such as juvenile court excluding confusion; juvenile court, including confusion; juvenile court applying sequential sentencing (Ellis, 2011; Greenwood, 2009).

In 2000, the National Center for State Courts assessed the effectiveness of the practice of mixed sentencing, including analysis of different types of mixed sentencing occurrence, the factors influencing the choice of mixed sentences, and the types of punishment in different models of mixed sentences, which led to good results. Nevertheless, many experts believe that the development of juvenile justice in the United States will most likely follow the path of combining the practice of mixed sentences and referral of cases to the court for adults. However, a number of specialists (lawyers, psychologists, sociologists, social workers) argue against the juvenile justice policy and its combined nature. In other words, critics claim that it is relevant to make against adolescents by a thorough consideration of different cases.

Juvenile Delinquency Underpinnings 

Actually, the problem of juvenile delinquency requires a complex consideration. In the philosophical paradigm, social and healthcare areas, the phenomenon of juvenile delinquency is a fertile background for theoretical developments and empirical researches.  “The idea that social change can promote deviant or rebellious behavior has a long pedigree. It can be found in the writings of Emile Durkheim on anomie suicide, Robert Merton on the criminogenic consequences of the modern incongruence between cultural goals and institutionalized means, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels on revolutionary class consciousness, and Chalmers Johnson on the revolution of rising expectations, among others” (Bao & Haas, 2009). Therefore, a comprehensive consideration about juvenile delinquency enables to develop a set of principles and rules preventing its further expansion.  

The cooperation among the modern psychologists, philosophers, and sociologists creates a favorable background for prevention of this phenomenon. “Theories detailing the causes of juvenile delinquency are widespread and focus on many biological, psychological, and sociological variables. Criminological theories of delinquency under sociology emphasize variables including race, class, and gender. However, these theories overlook individual characteristics such as learning disabilities” (Pryor-Kowalski, 2013). The main difference between adult and adolescent criminals is that the latter is in the process of constantly growing and development. They do not realize the fact that their actions may hamper their destinies and lives of others. 

The youth demonstrating their protests, a high level of evil and crime undermine the sound society.  Who is responsible for the growing number of crimes committed by youth? The psychologists claim, “…youth violence seems to cause more than mere physical harm and the effects extend beyond the victims and victimizers. Those living in threatening environments at school, at home, or in the neighborhood have an increased incidence of depression” (Tweed et al., 2011). 

Violent acts demonstrated by youth are often considered to be criminal acts. Therefore, adolescents need a proper social support, the creation of favorable conditions, planning, and strategies, which will prevent the potential occurrence of crimes. Positive interventions, motivation, forgiveness and other relevant policies facilitating the process of adolescents’ integration in society can be effective for violence prevention (Tweed et al., 2011). The same opinion expresses the psychologist Wood (2015), “Positive emotions are foundations for empathy, compassion, integrity, conscience, joy, motivation, friendships, and personal responsibility” (Wood, 2015). 

Moreover, it is relevant to involve young people in the life of communities, extracurricular school activities, connect them with multifaceted activities, and, in such a way, prevent their violent behaviors (Farrington, Welsh, Brandon, 2007).  One of the primary concerns is to prevent a child from the abusive or violent family. Living in a healthy environment, a child will be in safety and would not demonstrate his violent behaviors or commit any crimes. The aggressive behavior of young people leads them to expose others to bullying, intimidation and other negative consequences.

 “Given the negative consequences of violence exposure, there is a need to better understand how to promote and facilitate the engagement of mental health services for violence-exposed youth” (Lewis et al., 2013). In other words, a positive development of youth or their motivation for involvement in different socially favorable activities will enable prevention of youngsters’ criminal behavior. Costs spent by the American government on prevention of occurrence and consequences of juvenile delinquency should be redirected into the development of preventive practices.  

There is a wide range of funds sponsoring juvenile delinquency prevention. For example, the New York’s Delinquency Prevention Grant Program oriented on 7-15 years old youth. “New York City College of Technology received a one-year $197,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to expand the college’s involvement with Brooklyn, New York’s at-risk youth population. The funds will be used to provide educational opportunities and alternative paths to 200 students at Passages Academy, a local high school program that educates 4,000 court-referred youth at secure and non-secure sites” (“Grants & Awards,” 2005, p. 35).  This program intends to decrease the number of risk factors triggering the antisocial behavior of youth, such as drugs or alcohol addiction, unemployment, a lack of education and other negative factors. 


Therefore, the juvenile justice is a set of legal medical and social, psychological, pedagogical and rehabilitation mechanisms, as well as other procedures and programs that contribute to ensuring the fullest protection of the rights, freedoms and legal interests of minors. The concept of juvenile justice includes both legal and social bases. Focusing on the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act (1974), its development and dynamic improvements, the legal and social foundations, it is clear that the implementation and advancement of the Act are still in process. Each State is implementing its own youth crime prevention program, which reflects their own traditions, needs, and customs. In the process of Act implementation, the juvenile justice in the United States focuses on the causes of criminal behavior of adolescents, their environment, and search for effective individual ways of influencing the perpetrator, which are alternative to criminal penalties. A key concern of this Act is to prevent recidivism and preserve the rights of the juvenile delinquents. Probation periods, rehabilitation, community involvement, and other preventive measures and strategies are developing in line with the Act. Thus, it is necessary to make extensive use of the experience gained by the USA in the field of alternative methods of resolving disputes involving juvenile delinquents. Another point is to adopt programs for the recovery of juvenile offenders in difficult life situations.

Post Author: Ali Corbett