A century ago, juvenile criminal offenders routinely languished in adult prisons, locked away for long stretches by judges who were unbound by uniform guidelines.
As the United States industrialized and waves of immigrants poured into cities, creating huge blocks of poverty, progressive social and political reformers pushed for changes in how youths who crossed the law were governed.
In his book (In)Justice for Juveniles, Ira M. Schwartz notes that this juvenile-reform movement dovetailed with America's growing interest in developing scientific approaches to its other social problems.
Reformers argued for a juvenile-justice system that did not punish a child but instead emphasized treatment meted out on a case-by-case basis. In exchange for avoiding the severity of penal life in an adult intitution, juveniles had to forgo many of the due-process rights that were afforded adults.
The first officially recognized juvenile-court system was established in Chicago in 1899. By 1917, all but three states had special courts for children.
Still, things were slow to change. Judges retained the authority to lock juveniles away as they pleased, said Frank Orlando, a retired Circuit Court judge in Florida who is writing a book on the first 100 years of juvenile justice in the United States.
Instead of adult prisons, youths were remanded to one of the growing number of reform schools, farm schools and last-chance ranches, many of which were unregulated and only marginally less oppressive than prison.
Real change came in the 1960s, Orlando said, when the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed a young person's right to such procedural protections as representation by counsel and formal court hearings. Generally, prosecutors were less able to lock up offending children. States then moved to create professional alternative treatment programs and regulated facilities for juveniles.
By 1985, as the rate of violent crimes by youths was escalating, so was the public's impatience. That year, Florida reversed the tide by allowing violent offenders as young as 14 to be tried as adults. Many states have followed suit.
The federal Office of Juvenile Justice is encouraging states to enact laws to incarcerate dangerous juvenile offenders or risk losing federal funding.
``What we are doing is reversing the idea that a child is different than an adult and should be handled differently when they commit a crime,'' Orlando said. ``We are going back to where we were a century ago, and we are saying, I think, that nothing works.''