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Juvenile Justice: Then and Now


The system of juvenile justice underwent a constant process of alteration as the United States government continuously redefined the role of the courts in the lives of children. The Juvenile Court Act of 1899 created the first national juvenile court in Cook County, Illinois. The early juvenile court system was established taking into account the British doctrine of parens patriae (the state as the parent), and based on the assumption that children were malleable and could be rehabilitated. The procedures of the court were very different than in adult criminal courts. Although the courts were trying to protect the children from unfair treatment, they were also denying them some of the basic rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. A series of landmark United States Supreme Court cases, beginning in 1966 with Kent v. United States, began to challenge the very paradigm of a juvenile justice system that did not afford the youth some of the basic protections provided in the Bill of Rights.

In this lesson, students will examine how the juvenile justice system evolved over time.



  1. Place a copy of the Selected Amendments of the United States Bill of Rights on an overhead projector and generate a discussion with the class using questions such as:
    • Do these amendments apply to youthful offenders? Why or why not?
    • Should children be treated as adults in a court of law?
    • What ages constitute childhood and adulthood?
    • Why would there be a need for a different court system for children than for adults?
  2. Arrange the class into groups with three or four students to a group. Give each student a copy of the Juvenile Justice Reading Guide and the Juvenile Justice Graphic Organizer. Inform the class that they are to read the guide and complete the graphic organizer. In the various sections of the graphic organizer they are to include information relative to the role families, the government, and court systems played in the juvenile justice system during the time periods indicated. Within their group they should share their ideas with each other and discuss the reasons for their responses. At this time, take a moment to answer any questions and dispel any misconceptions students may have.
  3. Next, give each student a copy of the Juvenile Justice Activity Guide and have them individually complete it by referring to their graphic organizers for assistance as necessary.
  4. When students have completed the exercise, reconvene the class and review the Juvenile Justice Activity Guide with them. They should be required to provide some rationale for their answers and, if necessary, refer back to their completed graphic organizers for supporting data.
  5. Conclude the lesson with a general discussion focusing on the ways the U. S. justice system has dealt with juveniles over the years. Consider the culture in each time period, adult expectations of children, the legal system in place during that period, etc. Elicit the class’s thoughts as to how they believe juveniles should be treated by the courts. Should age make a difference? At what age does a child become an adult? Should the severity of the crime influence the punishment meted out?

Lesson Extensions

  1. Write a Letter
    • Tell students to pretend that the boy in the primary image is their brother in the year 2010.
    • Have students write a letter, explaining what the court system would have been like for him in 1799 or 1899. The letter should explain how the court system would have treated him differently than now.
  2. Current Case Study
    • Perform an internet search to find a current court case involving a young (10-12 year old) defendant.
    • Present the basic outline of the case to the class.
    • Lead a discussion about the current case based on the following questions: What are the steps taking place as the case proceeds? What is being considered in determining how to try and how to sentence the child? What are the opposing points of view? At what age should a person be considered an adult?

This lesson was written by Margret Atkinson, elementary school teacher, Baton Rouge, LA, and Bill Neer, Visiting Assistant Professor of Literacy, Lemoyne College, Syracuse, NY.