Creation of juvenile court

Creation of the U.S. Juvenile Court System

By Maura Downey

The formal United States Juvenile Court system began on the cusp of a new century, spurred by the zeitgeist surrounding “childhood,” such as the implementation of education and child labor laws, which followed the transition from an agrarian to industrial economy (Borum & Otto, 2003). But, previous to the social and legislative movements towards children’s rights in the United States, famous thinkers and special interest groups paved the way for social concerns towards juvenile delinquency and a child’s capacity for cognitive awareness.

A political cartoon following the social zeitgeist, speaking out against “cheap child labour.”

Great Britain:

Before the separation of adult and juvenile court systems, British lawyer William Blackstone proposed the idea that at a certain age, individuals were incapable of committing crimes. In his published works, Commentaries on the Laws of England (1765-1769), Blackstone introduced a defining line between the stage of infancy (anyone under the age of seven) and and adulthood (anyone under the age of fourteen). Between the two ages, Blackstone proposed that an individual’s capacity for crime and their responsibility could be judged on a case-by-case basis (Chapman, 2012).

Sir William Blackstone

During the mid 1800’s, social concerns in Great Britain turned toward the impoverished and in 1825, the Society for the Reform of Juvenile Delinquents was established as the first house of refuge.

Along with the development of institutional care for children, the Youthful Offenders Acts of 1854 1861, and 1867 were passed, and formed the first official “legal” concept of “young people” (Chapman 2012).

United States:

Meanwhile, reformers in the United States began to take notice of Great Britain’s justice system, and interest towards the rehabilitation of criminals began to rise, resulting in a decrease of executions for the incarcerated. This resulted an overcrowding of the prison system.

Before the formation of the U.S. Juvenile Court system, the criminal court ascribed to Sir William Blackstone’s theory of infant innocence and responsibility at age 14; any minor over the age of 14 was processed, tried, and punished according to the adult criminal court system. Children between the ages of seven and fourteen could also be tried within the criminal courts and receive adult sanctions as well (Borum & Otto 2003).

By 1899, the Illinois Juvenile Court Act was passed, ultimately changing the procedural handling of juvenile cases and spurring the movement towards understanding a child’s “character” to determine whether rehabilitation was appropriate for the individual child (Borum & Otto 2003).

First Juvenile Court, Cook County, Chicago, Illinois

Likewise, in 1899, the Denver Juvenile Court was established, and created a new court system ┬ábased upon the concept that children were essentially “good individuals.” Those who had broken the law had “gone astray” due to “social or psychological circumstances” (Chapman 2012).





Media References (in order of appearance):

Political Cartoon:

Spagnoli, F. (2009, October 16). [Digital image]. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from

Sir William Blackstone:

Gainsborough, T. (2008, May 25). [Sir William Blackstone]. Retrieved November 20, 2012, from

Cook County Juvenile Court:

DiCello, R. F. (2012, March 3). [First Juvenile Court, Cook County, Illinois]. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from

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