Juvenile Justice

Evolution of Juvenile Justice

The law between juvenile and adult offenders has a long defined line drawn at various places for some reasons. Initially, when the United States was a colony, they heavily relied on the law of England as a guide in punishing and correcting offenders. William Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Law of England was used to distinguish people capable of committing an offense. According to Blackstone (2002), two things were used to hold individuals accountable for a felony committed. Firstly, there had to be a vicious will, and secondly, there had to commit an unlawful act. Children under the age of seven years were regarded as infants, while those above fourteen years were liable to adult punishments if they committed a crime. Between the ages of seven to fourteen years, this was the gray zone, and children were presumed incapable of committing an offense. However, during the nineteenth century, the juvenile system in the United States began experiencing major changes, and since then, it has made significant progress. Nowadays, the American juvenile justice system draws on hundreds of years of legal traditions and battles. Especially the beginning of the 1960s, the U.S. Supreme Court experienced a wave of juvenile cases that profoundly changed the proceedings in the juvenile courts.  

Kent vs. the United States

The Kent v. United States, of 1966 found Morris Kent in the system of minors for the criminal act of several house breakings and attempted snatching (Merlo & Benekos, 2017). Two years later, he would become a culprit through fingerprints to a robbery and rape felony. Morris was detained and interrogated and admitted to the crimes. For Kent, his lawyer’s request to have him under treatment and take him to a rehab was ignored by the court which proceeded to transfer him to a criminal adult court for trial. Nonetheless, this incident would later lead to a significant change in the juvenile system. According to Hess & Wright (2012), it was established that juvenile transfer to adult courts must evaluate the due process and play fair in the ruling. The child must have an attorney to represent them, and they must have access to the juvenile records of the child.

In re Gault of 1967

One year after Kent decisions, the case of Gerald Gault led to a major significant change to the way juvenile cases were processed by the courts. Before the hearing, as Merlo & Benekos (2017) explain, both Gerald and his parents were not aware of the specific charges against him. When the court passed the ruling, Gerald’s parents had to petition for his release arguing based on denial of due process of law. Eventually, a unanimous decision was reached that required due process of the law is followed in juvenile courts. The decision included the right of notice, right to legal counsel, right to confront witnesses, and right against self-incrimination (Hess & Wright, 2012). This was one way to restore the rightful role of the juvenile court proceedings, whose ultimate goal was to correct a condition in the delinquents. 

In re Winship

Another case that changed the procedures of juvenile court was the In re Winship case of 1070, which involved a 12-year-old boy accused of stealing $112 from a woman (Merlo & Benekos, 2017). Instead of the court adopting the “beyond reasonable doubt” evidence, they preferred “the preponderance of the evidence,” which allowed available evidence to prosecute a victim. The argument was that the court was best placed to decide on the best interests of the juvenile and wining the case was not necessary. The case as Hess & Wright (2012) pointed out, changed the court’s proceedings and established that proof “beyond reasonable doubt” must be the standard adjudication for juvenile proceedings, and there is no such thing as clear, convincing, or preponderance evidence. This change helped move juvenile courts close to adult criminal trials operations leaving behind the idea of juvenile courts as benevolent and less formal institutions.


Blackstone, W. (2002). Commentaries on the laws of England volume 4. London: University of Chicago Press.

Hess, K. M., & Wright, J. P. (2012). Juvenile justice. Belmont, Calif: Wadsworth.

Merlo, A. V., & Benekos, P. J. (2017). Reaffirming Juvenile Justice: From Gault to Montgomery. Milton: Taylor and Francis.

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