In colonial times, children over the age of five were treated either as small adults or property. A seven year old child could be sentenced in criminal courts. In 1648 in Massachusetts, a child who cursed his natural parents could be put to death. In 1825, the Society for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency advocated separating juvenile and adult offenders. Soon after, facilities for juveniles were established in most major cities. Although these facilities were established to reform delinquents through prayer, study and hard work, youth were still punished with whippings and leg irons. By mid century, these facilities were criticized for abuse and states began to assume responsibility for juvenile facilities.
In 1899, the nation’s first juvenile court for youth under the age of 16 was established in Chicago to provide rehabilitation rather than punishment. By 1925, following the Chicago model, all but two states had juvenile courts whose goals were to turn youth into productive citizens utilizing treatment that included warnings, probation, and training school confinement. Treatment lasted until the child was “cured” or turned 21. Although judges spoke with the offending children and decided upon the punishment, the lack of established rules and poor rehabilitation led to unfair treatment.
The 1967 U.S. Supreme Court case of In re Gault held that juveniles were entitled to the same constitutional due process rights as adults, beginning a national reform in juvenile justice. In 1967, the juvenile justice system was overhauled to afford children many of the same rights that adults have in court.
During the 1980s, the pendulum began to swing toward "law and order," as violent juvenile crime increased and public safety became a concern. During the 1990s the nation saw a time of unprecedented change as state legislatures passed laws to crack down on juvenile crime, as Americans voiced growing concern over highly publicized and violent juvenile crime.
Due to a series of school shootings and other violent incidents, the public began to fear a new breed of "juvenile super predators," resulting in significant changes to national policy. Every state then passed laws making it easier to try juveniles in adult criminal court.
Recently, states have attempted strike a balance in their approach to juvenile justice systems as research suggests that locking youth away in large, secure juvenile facilities is ineffective and does not provide rehabilitation.
Changes in Life Sentences for Juveniles
In the early 1840s, Boston shoemaker John Augustus identified a way of keeping people out of jail: he bailed them out and asked the court to continue their cases while he kept a close eye on them. In most instances, Augustus did not know these people personally. He never had an official title or received payment from the court, although he became a fixture in the courts. Mr. Augustus assured judges that if the adults and children that he chose were released, he "would note their general conduct, and see that they were sent to school or supplied with some honest employment." By the time of Augustus’ death in 1859, he had provided bail for over 1900 juveniles and adults. Over the next half-century, probation supervision of juvenile delinquents became more and more common.
In 1899, the Illinois legislature established a special court in Cook County (Chicago) that relied on informal procedures to assist children in trouble. This court dealt differently with children who broke the law by avoiding the stigma of criminality and by treating them as "children in need of aid, encouragement, and guidance." It is regarded as the world’s first juvenile court. It was in this court that the practice of probation and the role of the Probation and Parole Officer (PPO) took form. The National Probation Association was formed in 1907.
In the second half of the 20th century, juvenile probation underwent significant changes. Rather than reducing the number of juveniles placed in institutions, the opposite occurred in the name of "treatment." In the 1960s, the "labeling" theory suggested that contact with the juvenile justice system would place a stigma on children. In 1974, a largely misquoted and misinterpreted article entitled, What Works? Questions and Answers about Prison Reform concluded that nothing works.
During the 1980s, the focus of Probation and Parole Officers shifted as youth crime rapidly escalated in number and seriousness. In the 1990s, probation remained the cornerstone of the juvenile justice system, with over half of the nation’s juvenile court caseload receiving probation services.
With the turn of a new century, the field of juvenile probation continues to evolve. Research has concluded that communities must become more involved in the problem-solving, preventive approach to juvenile crime. The traditional role of the Probation and Parole Officer working primarily from the office and seeing the client on a limited basis is shifting to include more face-to-face contact in the youth’s own environment.