Until the early 19th century in the United States, children as young as 7 years old could be tried in criminal court and, if convicted, sentenced to prison or even to death. Children under the age of 7 were presumed to be unable to form criminal intent and were therefore exempt from punishment. The establishment of special courts and incarceration facilities for juveniles was part of Progressive Era reforms, along with kindergarten, child labor laws, mandatory education, school lunches, and vocational education, that were aimed at enhancing optimal child development in the industrial city (Schlossman, 1983). Reformers believed that treating children and adolescents as adult criminals was unnecessarily harsh and resulted in their corruption. In the words of one reformer, the main reason for the establishment of the juvenile court was “to prevent children from being treated as criminals ” (Van Waters, 1927:217). Based on the premise that children and young adolescents are developmentally different from adults and are therefore more amenable to rehabilitation, and that they are not criminally responsible for their actions, children and adolescents brought before the court were assumed to require the court's intervention and guidance, rather than solely punishment. They were not to be accused of specific crimes. The reason a juvenile came before the court—be it for committing an offense or because of abuse or neglect by his or her parents or for being uncontrollable—was less important than understanding the child's life situation and finding appropriate, individualized rehabilitative services (Coalition for Juvenile Justice, 1998; Schlossman, 1983). Historians have noted that the establishment of the juvenile court not only diverted youngsters from the criminal court, but also expanded the net of social control over juveniles through the incorporation of status jurisdiction into states' juvenile codes (e.g., Platt, 1977; Schlossman, 1977).
The first juvenile court in the United States, authorized by the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899, was founded in 1899 in Chicago. The act gave the court jurisdiction over neglected, dependent, and delinquent children under age 16. The focus of the court was rehabilitation rather than punishment. Records of the court were to be confidential to minimize stigma. The act required separation of juveniles from adults when incarcerated and barred the detention of children under age 12 in jails. The act also provided for informality in procedures within the court. The idea of the juvenile court spread rapidly. By 1925, a functioning juvenile court existed in every state except Maine and Wyoming (Schlossman, 1983).
How well the juvenile courts around the country lived up to the founders ' aspirations is difficult to ascertain. They succeeded in diverting most children and adolescents from the criminal system, but they may