Prior to 19th century, juvenile offenders in the United States were tried in the same courts and incarcerated in the same prison as adults. This had led reformers to call the juveniles' removal from the adult institutions and transfer to "Reform Schools" and "Houses of Refuge." However, juvenile institutions became prisons in all but name. Youth offenders were once again jailed with adults. This marked for new calls for reform (Building Blocks for Youth).
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Since the late 1800s a number of reforms had influenced the shaping of the U.S. policies on youth offenders. Most of the reforms are directed at the protection of the due process of law rights of the youth, and the creation of repugnance toward jail among the youth. During the Progressive Era in the U.S., which spanned between 1900 and 1918, there was a growth in the women's suffrage movement, the fight for eighth-hour workday, and the campaign against child labor.
Prior to this era, youth offenders over age of seven were jailed with adults. In 1824, early reformers, with the aim to rehabilitate youth offenders instead of punishing them, built the House of Refuge. Similar youth reform homes were built beginning in 1899. The state assumed the responsibility of taking care of the youth as its parent (parens patriae) until they become adults. Youth were no longer tried in same courts as adults. Informal courts for juveniles were likewise built (Lawyershop.com, 2008).
In 1960s, juvenile courts already had jurisdiction over almost all cases involving those under the age of 18. The constitutionalization of the juvenile court began this period. In 1966, the Court held in Kent vs United States that youth transferred to adult courts should be entitled to a hearing, a statement of reasons for his transfer, and a representation by counsel.
In 1967, the Court held in In re Gault that the youth subject to a delinquency proceeding should have the right to notice, as well as the right to be heard, right to counsel, right against self-incrimination, and right to cross-examine. In 1970, the case In re Winship provided the doctrine that the state must prove the youth guilty of charges against him beyond reasonable doubt. By 1975, the Court ruled in Breed vs Jones that the double jeopardy clause does prohibit the states from transferring the youth to an adult court after finding that he is delinquent (Building Blocks for Youth).
In 1968, the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act was passed, encouraging states to develop programs that would diminish juvenile delinquency. This Act led to the passage of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act that was passed in 1974. This new act created the Runaway Youth Program, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection (OJJDP), and the National Institute for Juvenile Justice and delinquency Prevention (NJJDP). The act was later on amended to include certain provisions allowing the states to try juveniles as adults for the commission of violent crimes. This was in view of the rise in juvenile crimes between late 1980s and mid-1990s. It must be remembered that in the late 1990s, there was a growing concern on highly publicized school shootings that caused the public to fear juvenile offenders (Lawyershop.com, 2008).
Today, juveniles accused of crimes are treated differently from adults. Each state has its own procedures for handling cases of youth offenders. As a general rule, persons under 14 years of age cannot be charged with a crime unless it can be proved that mens rea or guilty intent was present (Lawfirms.
Minors may be charged as adults if in the judge's opinion, the juvenile rehabilitation will not be beneficial to the youth (Lawfirms.com). But in any case, the paramount consideration in deciding how the trial should go is the interest of the child. The law frowns upon giving the youth a harsh penalty.