The legal concept of juvenile status, like the concept of childhood itself, is relatively new. The juvenile court system was established in the United States about two hundred years ago, with the first court appearing in Illinois in 1899. Prior to that time, children and youth were seen as miniature adults and were tried and punished as adults.
During the progressive era, which occurred between 1880 and 1920, social conditions in the United States were characterized by large waves of immigration and a dramatic increase in urbanization. As a direct result, hundreds of indigent children wandered the streets, and many became involved in criminal activity. Initially, children who were convicted of crimes were housed with adult criminals. Social activists, law makers, and other officials soon realized that children institutionalized with adults were learning adult criminal behaviors and were exiting those institutions ready for life careers in criminality. Because of this negative influence, separate juvenile court systems and accompanying correctional institutions were developed.
Early juvenile institutions in the United States were based on the English Bridewell institution which emphasized the teaching of life and trade skills. The idea behind teaching skills was that criminality was a result of the social environment and often was a survival mechanism. If youth were taught other skills, they were more likely to make meaningful contributions to society upon their release.
Three other types of juvenile institutions began to appear in the United States during the progressive era: houses of refuge, new reformatories, and separate institutions for juvenile females. Houses of refuge focused on the reeducation of youth and used indeterminate sentencing, religious training, and apprenticeships in various trades. The houses were organized using a military model to promote order and discipline, but the houses were often overcrowded and youth were overworked.
New reformatories, established in the mid to late 1800s, were cottages and foster homes that were often situated on farms. Family-type organization was prevalent, and hard physical labor was stressed. New reformatories suffered from the same types of problems that houses of refuge did. Separate juvenile institutions for girls appeared in the mid 1880s, and these focused on teaching domestic and childrearing skills to girls.
The first juvenile courts operated under the philosophy of parens patriae first articulated in Prince v. Massachusetts (1944). This philosophy meant the state could act “as a parent,” and gave juvenile courts the power to intervene whenever court officials felt intervention was in the best interests of the child. Any offense committed was secondary to the offender. While parens patriae was designed to handle youth committing criminal acts, the discretion of this philosophy became increasingly more broad and was constantly debated in court. A number of pivotal cases ensued which helped the juvenile justice system evolve.