Prior to the 1900s, juvenile lawbreakers were treated like adult offenders. Beginning with the Illinois Juvenile Court Act in 1899, children were treated differently. This Illinois law authorized a separate children's court to hear cases of delinquent, dependent, and neglected children. The invention of the juvenile court was based on the doctrine of
parens patriae, meaning “the state as parent.” Bent on saving children from becoming criminals, reformers advocated transferring the responsibilities for protecting children from families to special children's courts. By bringing wayward children under the control of the juvenile court, the court could manage the affairs of children in the manner of a caring father and mother dealing with their children. Undergirding parens patriae
was the ethnocentric view that many immigrant parents were unsuitable as parents, and this notion, in turn, justified the expanded legal powers of the court.
A central premise of the juvenile court is that juveniles and adults should be treated differently. It is assumed that adolescents have less responsibility for their acts and need protection. Therefore, it follows that juveniles should receive less than the full adult penalties for their misconduct. In addition, informal procedures are preferred for handling juvenile cases, and discretionary processes are the norm. For example, most states have instituted juvenile codes patterned after the Illinois model.
The architects of these laws based their models on the adult criminal court system, while eliminating most of the procedural safeguards protecting constitutional rights of persons accused of crimes. The court was to be paternalistic instead of adversarial. Following the logic of parens patriae, it was assumed that formal procedures that ensure constitutional rights for juveniles are unnecessary because the court is committed to looking out for the best interests of children.
Under the parens patriae philosophy, the goal of the juvenile court became individualized justice. Judges and other decision makers in the juvenile justice system were encouraged to look beyond a youth's alleged crimes to the best interests of the child. Tailoring decisions to the needs of the individual child led them to base discretionary judgments on social characteristics of offenders such as race, sex, age, family status, and social class. Such reliance on nonlegal factors has resulted in differential processing and more severe sentencing of minority youths, raising issues of fairness and equality.
During the 1960s and 1970s, with the due process revolution expanding the rights of adult defendants, the U.S. Supreme Court introduced constitutional due process into the juvenile justice system. More recently, the threat of juvenile crime has led to less emphasis on juveniles' rights and more stress on punishment. As policymakers became disillusioned with rehabilitation, they embraced retribution and deterrence as the best approaches to stopping juvenile street crime. Reflecting this punitive attitude, politicians and the general public demanded that juveniles be tried as adults.