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Throughout much of its history, the American juvenile court maintained a goal of rehabilitation of the individual, and placed custody and punishment as secondary or ancillary goals in the pursuit of "remaking the child's character and lifestyle." To its founders, the development of a separate juvenile court reflected a fundamental distinction between sanctions based on characteristics of the offender, and punishment based on the offense. Juvenile court dispositions were designed to determine why the child was in court, and what could be done to avoid future appearances. Judge Julian Mack's classic statement of the original theory of the juvenile court suggested that he thought blameworthiness was not significant. The function of the court was "not so much to punish as to reform, not to degrade but to uplift, not to crush but to develop, not to make [the delinquent] a criminal but a worthy citizen." The object for uncomplimentary comparison with the juvenile court in the Mack rhetoric was obviously the criminal court.

Despite the due process reforms of juvenile court procedures pursuant to In re Gault, the Supreme Court in McKeiver v. Pennsylvania remained ideologically committed to the traditional "treatment" rationale of the juvenile court. The right to treatment for juvenile offenders has been affirmed in U.S. Supreme Court decisions beginning with Gault. The central justification for the separation of juvenile and adult jurisdiction is the distinction between punishment and treatment. Punishment involves the imposition of burdens (i.e., deprivation of liberty) on an individual, based on past or current offenses, for purposes of retribution or deterrence. Treatment focuses on the present and future well being of the individual rather than the commission of prohibited acts. Disproportionate responses to comparable individuals were tolerated, if underlying factors or mitigating circumstances were found, especially if illegal behaviors were attributed to modifiable social or psychological deficits. Concerns with punishment, retribution, just desserts, or deterrence were secondary concerns in the origins of the concept of "sanction" in the juvenile court. To prevent contamination of juvenile offenders by adult criminals, youth were detained and treated in separate facilities. The distinctions between juvenile and criminal sanctions thus were not limited to the nature of the proceedings, but to the very distinction between treatment and custody.


Criminal Law | Criminology | Juvenile Law | Law