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Juvenile Offenders and Victims

2006 National Report

Juvenile Justice System Structure & Process


The first juvenile court in the United States was established in Chicago in 1899, more than 100 years ago. In the long history of law and justice, juvenile justice is a relatively new development. The juvenile justice system has weathered significant modifications since the late 1960s, resulting from Supreme Court decisions, federal legislation, and changes in state legislation.

Perceptions of a juvenile crime epidemic in the early 1990s fueled public scrutiny of the system's ability to effectively control violent juvenile offenders. As a result, states adopted numerous legislative changes in an effort to crack down on juvenile crime. Although some differences between the criminal and juvenile justice systems have diminished in recent years, the juvenile justice system remains unique, guided by its own philosophy and legislation and implemented by its own set of agencies.

This chapter describes the juvenile justice system, focusing on structure and process features that relate to delinquency and status offense matters. (The chapter on victims discusses the handling of child maltreatment matters.) Sections in this chapter provide an overview of the history of juvenile justice in this country, present the significant Supreme Court decisions that have shaped the modern juvenile justice system, and describe case processing in the juvenile justice system. This chapter also summarizes changes made by states with regard to the system's jurisdictional authority, sentencing, corrections programming, confidentiality of records and court hearings, and victim involvement in court hearings. Much of the information was drawn from National Center for Juvenile Justice analyses of juvenile codes in each state.