The Establishment of a Juvenile Justice System

Series | Lies Every Teen Believes

The fourth ingredient to the growth of adolescence is the creation of the juvenile justice system. This was developed to segregate younger lawbreakers from older ones and produced a different system of record keeping, a different standard for the punishment and probation for “juveniles.” Just as teenagers were no longer expected to be responsible to support themselves, they were no longer held responsible for their criminal acts, despite the fact that for thousands of years prior the legal system treated teenagers as adults.

The juvenile court movement began in idealism and outrage. It all started when Benjamin Lindsey, a young lawyer recently arrived in Denver, was assigned to defend a couple of burglars. He was lead down a long corridor to what he called a cage, where he found two boys playing poker with a safe-cracker and a horse thief. He didn’t say whether the boys were teens or younger. But they had been locked up with these “hard-core” criminal companions for more than sixty days. The youths had learned to gamble from the two older men, “upon whom,” Lindsey said, “they had come to look as great heroes.” He protested to the warden who agreed it was a problem, but said there was nothing he could do about it.

“Here were two boys,” Lindsey wrote, “neither of them serious enemies of society, who were about to be convicted of burglary, and have felony records standing against them for the rest of their lives. And pending the decision of their cases…the state was sending them to a school for crime–deliberately teaching them to be horse thieves and safe-crackers. It was outrageous and absurd.”

The juvenile court he founded and presided over in Denver in 1900 was not the first, but it did receive much attention and the movement gained momentum. Lindsey did not propose merely to punish people differently, or separately, for the crimes they committed. While the traditional goal of the legal system was to be detached and impartial, Lindsey’s vision was for officers of the court to become a part of the young peoples’ lives. He argued that determining guilt or innocence shouldn’t be the goal of the court, but rather to encourage or induce (or even coerce) young offenders into changing their conduct so that they would not grow into adult criminals.

In our day there are not only separate procedures and punishments but also “a large roster of offenses that are considered crimes only if young people commit them,” such as youth curfews in various cities (Hine, p. 20).

The widespread failure to hold teenagers legally responsible for their actions is well documented on an almost daily basis in newspapers across the country. Consider just this one account:

It was 6:20AM, July 29, 1995. Starting home from an overnight camping trip with seven friends, the young man lost control of his father’s 1987 Chevy Suburban and sent it tumbling across a barren stretch of the Mojave Desert in Southern California. As the 5,000 pound truck rolled across the desert floor, the lives of four of his friends were snuffed out. “It’s my fault,” he told the survivors, sobbing, “I killed my friends!”

California Highway Patrol officers quickly agreed. The young man’s breath reeked of beer, and a blood test showed that he was legally drunk. Had he been considered an adult, James Virgil Patterson probably would have been sent to prison, perhaps for years. But because he was two months shy of his eighteenth birthday, the law regarded him as an errant youth. Despite the fact that he admitted to killing his four friends and seriously injuring three others, the law exempted him from adult punishment. Instead, the San Bernardino County Juvenile Court sentenced him to 120 days of alcohol rehabilitation. (As a gesture to the parents, the court also barred him from taking part in graduation ceremonies at his high school). (David Alan Black, The Myth of Adolescence).

Even though he admitted his offense, the officers on the scene confirmed his responsibility, and the court acknowledged his guilt, the assigned penalty was not proportionate to the crime committed but to his age.

While I am in favor of taking a person’s maturity and intentions (as much as they can be determined) into consideration, the current system has certain built-in flaws that tend to let younger offenders off the hook. And it is just possible that this “kinder, gentler” approach has not only failed to stunt the growth of adolescent crime while but has also reinforced the myth that young people can’t really help breaking the law anyway. Because everyone knows, teenagers are, by nature, irresponsible for their rebellion.