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Juvenile Justice: Legislative History and Current Legislative Issues

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Publication Date: April 2007

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL33947

Topic: Justice (Judgments and sentences)


Juvenile justice in the United States has predominantly been the province of the states and their localities. The first juvenile court in America was founded in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois, and, by 1925, all but two states had established juvenile court systems. The mission of these early juvenile courts was to rehabilitate young delinquents instead of just punishing them for their crimes; in practice, this led to marked procedural and substantive differences between the adult and juvenile court systems in the states, including a focus on the offenders and not the offenses, and rehabilitation instead of punishment.

The federal government began to play a role in the states' juvenile justice systems in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1974, Congress passed the first comprehensive piece of juvenile justice legislation, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA). The JJDPA had three main components: it created a set of institutions within the federal government that were dedicated to coordinating and administering federal juvenile justice efforts; it established grant programs to assist the states with setting up and running their juvenile justice systems; and it promulgated core mandates that states had to adhere to in order to be eligible to receive grant funding. Although the JJDPA has been amended several times over the past 30 years, its basic shape remains similar to that of its original conception.

As it was passed in 1974, the JJDPA focused largely on preventing juvenile delinquency and on rehabilitating juvenile offenders. Subsequent revisions to the act added sanctions and accountability measures to some existing federal grant programs, and new grant programs to the act's purview. In altering the JJDPA to include a greater emphasis on punishing juveniles for their crimes, Congress has essentially followed the lead of the states. During the 1980s and 1990s, most states revised their juvenile justice systems to include more punitive measures and to allow juveniles to be tried as adults in more instances. This has marked a significant change in the philosophy of the juvenile justice system, both at the state level and at the federal level, from its original conception. Juvenile justice in general has thus moved away from emphasizing the rehabilitation of juveniles and toward a greater reliance on sanctioning them for their crimes.

The last major reauthorization of the JJDPA occurred in FY2002; prior to that the act's major provisions had remained unauthorized (but had continued to be appropriated) from FY1998 through FY2001. The JJDPA is currently authorized through FY2007. Reauthorization of the JJDPA will likely be an issue confronting the 110th Congress in its first session. Policy issues associated with its reauthorization could include what the best federal response to juvenile violence and juvenile crime should be; whether the system should focus on the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders or on holding juvenile offenders accountable for their actions; and whether the grant programs as currently comprised represent the best way to support juvenile justice efforts in the states.

This report will be updated as circumstances warrant.


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