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In the United States, juvenile delinquents are believed to be less responsible than adults for their offenses due to their immaturity, lack of self-control, and inability to rationally weigh the costs and benefits of offending. In response to their diminished responsibility, separate systems for juveniles and adults were first developed in the 1800s, with the first juvenile court being established in Cook County, Illinois, in 1899 and the first juvenile institution being built in New York City in 1825 (Feld 1999). The American juvenile justice system has long been influenced by the legal doctrine of parens patriae, which allows states the power to discipline and protect juveniles, thereby assuming a parental role. In contrast to the criminal justice system, which tends to be more punitive and crime control oriented, the juvenile justice system is oriented toward rehabilitation and treatment. In an effort to lessen the impact of juvenile system involvement and better rehabilitate juveniles, the juvenile justice system treats delinquents differently than adult criminals. Most notably, the juvenile justice system is similar to civil proceedings, as juveniles do not develop criminal records, whereas prosecution in criminal courts results in lifelong records. Juveniles have extensive safeguards that prevent their hearings and delinquency records from becoming public, so that they may successfully reenter their communities without a delinquent history harming future outcomes. However, many states have recently been allowing for greater public access to juveniles’ delinquency records (Shah et al. 2014).

A main differentiating factor of juvenile and criminal courts is the informal nature of the juvenile system, which provides for individualized treatment. In order to ensure informality, juveniles historically had limited rights, as they were not entitled to counsel, confront witnesses, a trial by jury, an appeal, and hearings prior to being waived into adult courts. In many cases this resulted in juveniles being punished more harshly than adults for minor offenses, leading one Supreme Court justice to argue that their lack of basic rights resulted in juveniles being punished in a “kangaroo court.” Landmark cases in the 1960s including Kent v. United States and 383 U.S. 541 (S. Ct (1966) and In re Gault. 387 U.S. 1., 20 (1967) served to grant some of these basic rights to juveniles, although juveniles still do not have the right to a trial by a jury.

Despite the informal nature and treatment orientation of the juvenile system, historically juveniles could be treated punitively if they were transferred into criminal courts. Arguably two of the harshest sentences—capital punishment and life in prison without the possibility of parole (LWOP)—were inflicted upon juveniles until recently. After decades of challenges in the U.S. Supreme Court, the case of Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551. (S. Ct (2005) prohibited juveniles who offended under the age of 18 from being sentenced to death, as it was ruled to be a violation of their Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights against cruel and unusual punishment because of their diminished culpability. In the five-to- four decision, Justice Kennedy wrote for the majority that the “United States is the only country in the world that continues to give official sanction to the j uvenile death penalty” (p. 5). Later, the case of Graham v. Florida (2011) v. Florida, 130 S. Ct (2010) challenged LWOP parole sentences for juveniles. At the age of 17, while Graham was on parole for armed burglary, an offense for which he could have received an LWOP sentence, he was caught leaving the scene of another robbery. The criminal court judge in his case believed Graham was a habitual offender, thereby sentencing him to the original sentence of LWOP. The Supreme Court ruled in Graham’s case that LWOP sentences for juveniles who committed offenses other than homicide were unconstitutional as they were cruel and unusual punishment. In the case of Miller v. Alabama (2012) v. Alabama, 567 U.S., (S. Ct (2012), the Supreme Court expanded LWOP restrictions for juveniles to also include homicide offenders. Juveniles can no longer be sentenced to death or given LWOP sentences in the United States, but considerable variation in the age of jurisdiction and transfer still exists between states.

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