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History of Juvenile Justice

The juvenile justice system in the United States was built on the idea that an individual’s ability to understand right and wrong, as well as the consequences of his or her decisions, is not completely formed until adulthood.

15 to Life: Juvenile in court

The first juvenile court in the United States was established in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois, as a less punitive and more rehabilitative alternative for youth. Within 30 years, nearly every state in the United States had created a similar system where the intensions of juvenile disciplinary measures should reform an individual in a way that would deter him or her from future criminal involvement. The nature of the juvenile court is more “civil”, where attention is focused on the individual who committed the crime; this differentiates from the “criminal” nature of the adult justice system, which focuses more on the crimes themselves. In 1974, the U.S. Congress enacted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which provides funding to states to carry out federal protections regarding the care and treatment of youth in the juvenile justice system.

In order for a juvenile to receive a life sentence, his or her case must first be transferred to an adult criminal court. Every state allows for this transfer, but the age at which an individual is considered an adult is dependent on location and circumstances.  From 1985 to 1994, when politicians were using slogans such as “adult time for adult crime,” the number of juvenile cases transferred to adult criminal courts nearly doubled, from 7,200 to 13,200 cases. In 2007, nearly 14,000 juvenile cases were reported to be transferred to adult criminal court. However, this total includes only cases in the 13 states that publicly report their transfers—29 additional states also transfer youth cases to adult criminal court every year. The actual number of cases transferred is estimated to be around 250,000.

Sentencing a juvenile to life without parole is a relatively recent practice in the United States, and it almost never happened before the 1980s.  Because there is no national database tracking youth serving adult sentences and the age at which an individual is considered an adult varies by state, the exact number of youth serving life without parole is not known. However, a study published in 2013 by the Sentencing Project estimates that more than 2,500 juvenile inmates are currently serving life without parole sentences, and 7,862 total inmates are serving life sentences with the possibility of parole for crimes committed before 18 years of age.

The Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act and the Prison Rape Elimination Act work to dictate that youth may not be housed or left with out staff supervision with adult inmates. As a result, however, juvenile inmates may be placed in isolation, or solitary confinement, as a safety measure. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, “The potential psychiatric consequences of prolonged solitary confinement are well recognized and include depression, anxiety and psychosis.”

Additionally, many educational and reform programs for incarcerated youth face decreased funding, and more than 60 percent of juveniles with life sentences who responded to a survey taken in 2012 reported that they did not have access to these programs.

U.S. Supreme Court Decisions

Since 2005, three major Supreme Court cases have altered the sentencing of juvenile offenders in the United States:

Roper v. Simmons Decision (2005)

In the Roper v. Simmons case, the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional for a youth under 18 years old at the time of his or her crime to receive a death penalty sentence. This reversed the 1989 Stanford v. Kentucky ruling, which allowed youth who were 16 years or older at the time of their crimes to receive death penalty sentences.

Graham v. Florida Decision (2010)

In this case the Supreme Court ruled that sentencing a juvenile to life without the possibility of parole for a non-homicidal crime is in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The ruling requires that states give juveniles a “meaningful opportunity to obtain release based on demonstrated maturity and rehabilitation.” In the United States, 37 states and the District of Columbia still allow a juvenile to be sentenced to life for committing a non-homicidal crime.

Miller v. Alabama Decision (2012)

The 2012 Miller v. Alabama ruling made it unconstitutional to sentence someone who was under the age of 18 at the time of the crime to mandatory life without parole. The ruling requires a judge to take into consideration the age of the offender before sentencing him or her to life without parole.