In the first chapters of the American history of juvenile justice, the age of minority was quite low, making the juvenile justice program largely a non-entity. The courts, espousing the view that children should be held to the same standards of conduct as adults, saw fit to try children as young as eight in criminal courts as adults.
The fate after conviction was also not too rosy for children. Though with time authorities in some jurisdictions provided alternatives to holding children in adult jails, such as work camps, the former solution was still the norm for some time.
It would not be until the 19th Century that the next big policy shift occurred in the history of juvenile justice. For an authentic juvenile justice program to realized, there would have to be a separate court system created to manage the affairs of children, but in a way that was commensurate with their maturational development.
To some extent, juvenile crime was a factor in the promulgation of juvenile courts across the United States, but realistically, not a large one. Though we might think of “justice” only in terms of prosecuting suspects of crimes, the term also implies doing what is right for constituents within that jurisdiction. So, while a revamped juvenile justice program did take into mind the issue of processing child offenders through the courts, it also saw a need to protect child victims of poverty and neglect.
Though momentum for the creation of juvenile courts did gather in the 19th century, it was not until the very end that an additional court system for juvenile offenders did come to be, and only in the State of Illinois. The Juvenile Court Act of 1899 was a landmark legislative event in the history of juvenile justice.
First and foremost, the Act authorized the literal creation of a judicial court to hear cases of supposed child crimes and to prevent children from failing to reach their potential based on their bad behavior or poor standards of living. Also, this piece of legislation foreshadowed a national movement to change the age of legal majority, raising it to 16 years of age for inhabitants of Illinois.