Written by Dr. Nicole M. Vienna

June 28, 2023

The juvenile justice system has a unique approach to managing adolescent delinquency cases. Its principles and goals are different from the adult criminal justice system. It recognizes that children are fundamentally different from adults. That is, children are still physically and psychologically developing and can be more amenable to rehabilitation and reintegration into society. To assist in this process, the courts and legal decision-makers employ the use of forensic psychologists to provide expert opinions on various psychological factors in the case, such as risk, needs, treatment, case mitigation and disposition, and waiver to adult court.

The juvenile justice system has seen its fair share of ups and downs throughout history. Numerous milestones and several landmark cases have shaped its growth. These key milestones and cases have influenced policies, procedures, and treatment of youthful offenders. Below you will find a brief history of the juvenile delinquency system, or what we like to refer to as the juvenile justice system, a few landmark juvenile cases, and ways forensic psychologists assist in the process.

Early Roots and The Concept of Parens Patriae

The application of the Parens Patriae doctrine forms the early foundation of the juvenile justice system, shaping its approach to addressing juvenile delinquency.

The concept of parens patriae essentially meant “parent of the nation.” It emerged in the middle ages and recognized the government’s responsibility to act as a guardian for the children that were unable to care for themselves, said to be “troubled,” abused, neglected, or had other detrimental adversities. The court system was seen to be the greatest and most efficient means for governments and states to help children who couldn’t defend themselves.

Its roots are tied to English Common Law in the belief that the government would protect the children’s welfare and best interests. The American juvenile justice system would later adopt the Parens Patriae Doctrine as the basis of its system to treat children in a more rehabilitative manner as compared to adults. That is, provide early prevention, intervention, protection, and correctional guidance to incite growth and reintegration into society.

Progressive Era

The juvenile justice system saw a significant turning point between the 19th Century and the 20th Century. There was a need to tailor individual approaches to delinquency, not a one-size-fits-all. Thus, the first juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1899 under the leadership of Judge Julian Mack and operated on the principle of parens patriae. The court viewed this as treating children not as criminals but emphasizing the bests interests of the child by addressing the root causes of delinquency and providing them with due process rights. This shift in approach marked a departure from punitive measures and set the stage for a more specialized and rehabilitative juvenile justice system.

Early Landmark Cases

Ex parte Crouse (1838): Established the State’s Authority as Parens Patriae

Ex-Parte Crouse was a landmark in the U.S. regarding a dispute over the custody of an orphaned child. The court ruled that the state had an inherent right and responsibility and could act as the parent to protect the welfare of children who lacked proper parental care, such as delinquent or orphaned minors.

In re Gault (1967): Established that the Fourteenth Amendment of Due Process Rights Applies to Juvenile Offenders.

In re Gault was a very notable landmark case involving minor Gerald Gault, who made lewd and obscene phone calls to his neighbor. His parents were not notified of his arrest nor given notice about his petition for his hearing date. His parent was not present when the judge questioned him in court. No records were made of Gault’s admissions in court. Indeed, there were conflicting admissions while in court. Ultimately, the judge sentenced Gault to juvenile detention for six years until he turned 21. An adult who received the same charge (lewd phone calls) would have received a maximum of $50 fine and two months of jail time. Gault sought relief in the U.S. Supreme Court after a petition of writ of habeas corpus was dismissed by both the Supreme Court of Arizona and The Arizona State Courts. The U.S. Supreme Court discussed the importance of due process and held that juveniles are entitled to procedural safeguards under the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Kent v. The United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966): Recognized Vitally Important Statutory Rights of Juveniles (Procedural Safeguards for Juveniles), including The Right to Counsel.

383 U.S. 541 (1966) was a crucial case that recognized procedural safeguards for juveniles. Morris A. Kent was a 16-year-old male detained in connection with several incidents involving housebreaking, robbery, and rape. The Juvenile Court waived its jurisdiction after he admitted to some level of involvement. Therefore, he was tried as an adult and was ultimately indicted and sentenced to 30-90 years. Kent later filed to have the Court’s indictment dismissed on the grounds that the Juvenile Court’s waiver was invalid due to not having a full investigation before the waiver as required by the Juvenile Court Act. He was overruled and convicted on six counts of housebreaking and robbery. He was acquitted of the rape charges by reason of insanity.

Later, the Court determined the waiver invalid because there was not a sufficient investigation before the waiver was initiated as needed by The Juvenile Court Act. Prior to the waiver, Kent did not receive a hearing, access to counsel, or access to his record. The case was remanded to the district court. Eventually, the Court held that the procedure leading to the waiver and the waiver order itself were valid. However, Kent was 21 at this this time, and the Juvenile Court no longer had jurisdiction. Therefore, the court determined that the conviction must be vacated.

The importance here is that before being transferred to adult court, the Court decided that a juvenile must first be heard and found unfit for rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system. Juveniles are less responsible and mature than adults. Thus, according to the court’s reasoning, they shouldn’t face the same severe consequences.

Courts must consider various factors, including the juvenile’s mental health and emotional well-being when deciding whether a juvenile is eligible for rehabilitation in the juvenile justice system. This requires the use of mental health experts who can survey the necessities of the minors and give expert opinions related to risk, needs, and treatment.

Roper v. Simmons (2005): Abolished the Death Penalty for Juveniles.

Christopher Simmons was 17 when he was arrested for the murder of Shirley Cook. He was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to death once he turned 18. He appealed and made subsequent petitions for state and federal post-conviction relief that were denied. Later, the Court heard the Atkins v. Virginia case and held that the Eighth  Amendment prohibited the execution of what we now call “intellectually disabled” individuals as it was cruel and unusual punishment. Simmons then filed a new petition citing the Atkins decision, making a point that the same reasoning from the Atkins case applies to his case in so far as that execution of a juvenile when committing a crime under 18 violates the Eight Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. The Missouri Supreme Court agreed and remanded his sentence to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Forensic Psychologists

Forensic psychologists play a vital role in the juvenile justice system. They offer expert psychological scientific opinion that assists the trier of fact in making in sound legal decisions. When conducting juvenile forensic evaluations, they can assess psychological factors, cognitive/neurocognitive abilities, family dynamics,  risk factors, treatment needs, and functional impairments contributing to a minor’s involvement in delinquency, to name a few (depending on the referral question). Common juvenile forensic evaluations include:

  • Competency to Stand Trial
  • Competency to Wave Miranda Rights
  • Transfer to Adult Court (sometimes referred to as a fitness evaluation)
  • Youthful Offender (sometimes referred to as Franklin or Miller type of evaluations)
  • Disposition (often asked by lawyers regarding diagnostic clarification, risk and needs assessment, and treatment/placement/disposition recommendations)
  • Mitigation (often asked by lawyers regarding diagnostic clarification, risk and needs assessment, and treatment recommendations)

If you are interested in a psychological evaluation by one of our psychologists at Vienna Psychological Group, book your free consultation here.

  • To learn more about mental health and forensic psychology, check out our blog library here and our podcast, The Forensic Psychologist Podcast, hosted by Dr. Vienna on Spotify and Apple Podcasts.
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  • This blog aims to answer general questions and assist readers in better understanding the history of the juvenile delinquency system. This blog is not intended to provide medical, psychiatric, or legal advice. It should not be used as a substitute for clinical supervision or professional consultation. Please continue to seek out appropriate supervision and consultation.

When to seek emergency help?

Immediately call 911 or your local emergency number if you or someone you know is thinking about self-harm, suicide, or homicide or is in psychiatric distress. If you are with someone thinking about hurting themselves, stay with the person to keep them safe until emergency services arrive at your location.

  • 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (Call or Text 988)
  • Veterans Crisis Line (1-800-273-8255, Press 1 to talk)
  • Text Hello to 741741

Use the following telephone number for non-emergency services in LA County (the entry point for mental health services with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health).

  • LACDMH ACCESS LINE: 800-854-7771


Meng, A., Segal, R., & Boden, E. (2013). 19 American juvenile justice system: history in the making. Adolescent Psychiatry, 227.

Parens patriae, Nolo.com (last visited June. 17, 2023). https://www.nolo.com/dictionary/parens-patriae-term.html.

Robert H. Mnookin & D. Kelly Weisberg, Child, Family, and State: Problems and Materials on Children and the Law 199 (7th ed. 2014).





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