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Juvenile Justice:
History and Significance

by Cheryl Moya Galyean
Idaho State University

Grade: 6-8
Time Allotment: 3-4 50-minute class periods
Subject Matter: Civics and History

        The 19th century marked the turning point for children who committed crimes. Until that time, children were tried and punished as if they were adults. Social reformers and child advocates felt it was unfair to treat children in such a harsh manner. A child's criminal behavior, they felt, was frequently a result of their upbringing. The reformers thought children were too young to be responsible for their actions. Emphasis was placed on rehabilitation, attention and education. These beliefs became the basis of what is known as the juvenile justice system.
      Through the activities presented in this lesson, students will become familiar with the history of juvenile justice in the United States, current practice and societal beliefs surrounding this system. The students will gain knowledge about the U.S. Constitution and how it directly impacts their lives in the form of rights and responsibilities.

Learning Objectives:
Students will be able to:

  • Describe the basic timeline that created the current juvenile justice system
  • Understand the differences between juvenile and adult justice systems
  • Understand their basic legal rights and responsibilities
  • Describe the basic procedure in dealing with juvenile offenders
  • Identify ways in which they can be involved in advocacy or change in the juvenile justice system

From the National Standards for history, grades 5-12

  • NSH 3C: Analyze cause-and effect-relationships, bearing in mind multiple causation, including a. the importance of the individual in history, the influence of ideas, human interests, and beliefs.
  • NSH 3D: Draw comparisons across eras and regions in order to define enduring issues, as well as large-scale or long term developments that transcend regional or temporal boundaries.

From the National Standards for civics, grades 5-8

III E: How does the government established by the Constitution embody the purposes, values and principles of American democracy?
What is the place of law in the American constitutional system?

From the Idaho State Board of Education Achievement Standards-Middle grades:

  • 464 Government/Civics
    01.b: Acquire critical thinking and analytical skills by utilizing primary and secondary sources of information to gather facts.
    02.b: Understand the evolution of democracy and recognize that as a society becomes more complex so does its government.
  • 480 Foundations of the American Political system
    01.b, c: Understand the foundations and principles of the American political system by identifying fundamental values and principles as expressed in basic documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, and by evaluating issues in which fundamental values and principles are in conflict such as conflicts between liberty and equality, individual rights and the common good.
  • 482 Citizen responsibilities and rights
    01.b: Understand that all citizens of the United States have responsibilities and rights by explaining the relationship between individual freedom and personal responsibility in the United States.

Media Components :
Juvenile Justice (Frontline) #1908K1 Produced and Directed by Janet Tobias and Laura Rabhan Bar-On, Videocassette Dist. By PBS Home Video, 2001

pencil and paper
Chalk or dry erase board and chalk or markers
Multiple computers

Prep For Teachers
Prior to teaching, bookmark all of the Web sites used in the lesson. Load any plug-ins necessary to run the Web sites. Cue the video to the appropriate starting point. Prepare the handouts on juvenile rights and "You Be The Judge" segments.

Introductory Activities
Roots of Juvenile Justice
Have the following scenario written on the board: "You are 13 years old. You have just been taken into custody for vandalism to your school. Do you know your legal rights? After students have wait time, make a list of their responses on the board. Explain to your students that they will spend the next week learning about their legal rights and responsibilities as juvenile citizens of the United States.

Tell your students that just a little over 100 years ago, their lives would have been considerably different than they are today.
Ask your students if they have any ideas what life was like in the 19th century and even earlier if they can. Discuss responses. Ask your students to think about how life was like for children prior to 1900. Use different terms as above to indicate roughly the same time period. Explain there are many ways to say the same thing.

Divide your class into groups of 3-4 students. Ask each group to log on to one of the following sites:
One group go to "Boys and Girls in New Netherlands," another group to "London Children in Virginia."
Go to "1896 Youth's Educator for Home and Society"

Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, by asking them to examine the documents, cite whether they are primary or secondary sources, and record basic aspects of life for children during that time period.

Ask your students to share what they have learned with the class. Ask how children differed from adults, how children were treated, and how long a person was considered a child. Note general changes on the board as they come up. Ask your students to comment on these changes. Do they favor the changes? Why or why not?

Explain to your students that as the view of children changed, so did their rights and responsibilities. The legal system was affected by the changing views. Ask your students to think of ways their lives are affected by the legal view that they are not considered to be responsible for themselves until they turn 18. Tell your students the "not able to be responsible for themselves" was the phrase used for women and African Americans when these groups were seeking more rights. Do they feel this is fair? Why or why not? Note these observations on the board.

Learning Activities
Juvenile Court and Adult Court
Begin by asking your students to speculate out loud on possible differences between the juvenile court and the adult court of today. Ask your students to take into account how the view of children has changed over time.

In order to discover the differences between juvenile court and adult court ask your students to log onto:
  Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTIONby asking them to write down differences they find between court systems.

After information about the courts is recorded, ask your students to examine the words that are used to describe what happens in each court. In what way(s) are the terms different? Review the purposes of each court and identify which purpose(s) the terms represent in the sentences below:

  • A juvenile is taken into custody; an adult is arrested.
  • A juvenile commits an offense; an adult commits a crime.
  • A juvenile has a hearing; an adult has a trial.
  • A juvenile is found delinquent; an adult is found guilty.
  • A juvenile receives a disposition; an adult receives a sentence.

Ask your students if they think there is ever a time when a juvenile should be tried in adult court? Ask your students to keep this question in mind as they watch an excerpt from a Frontline video. Briefly summarize the video for your students. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking them to listen for two possible reasons why a juvenile might end up in the adult system. START the tape at the scene of protestors chanting "No on Prop 21." STOP the tape when Kurt Kumli stops talking ("…this person should no longer be in our system.).

Discuss the California proposition #21. Discuss the reasons students heard for moving a juvenile into the adult system. What possible ramifications could this have for juvenile offenders?

Juvenile Rights to Due Process
Talk to your students about the importance of the U.S. Constitution in our lives. Review with your students just what the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are. Ask them to think of ways in which we see the Constitution in action every day. Note their thoughts on the board.

Introduce the Gerald Gault case (387 U.S. 1). Discuss the course of events and the ruling by the Supreme Court with your students. Supply Students with a list of rights ruled by the Supreme Court to be due juveniles who are accused of offenses for which they could be sent to an institution. Tell students that these rights are also part of the Constitution.

Ask your students to log on to: // Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking your students to match the rights listed on their list with the rights listed with the appropriate amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Tell your students the juvenile court system is still undergoing changes. Ask students if they think juvenile courts are helping young people. After reviewing the Bill of Rights do they feel the system is on the right track? How do juvenile courts impact the notion of equality for all?

Discuss ways people influence change in systems such as the juvenile system. List points brought up by students. Have resources available, such as ways to get in touch with Senators and Congressmen, should any student express interest in learning more.

The Juvenile Court Process
Introduce the 4 basic steps found in the juvenile court process defining terms along the way:

  • The juvenile is taken into custody,
  • The preliminary hearing,
  • The adjudicatory hearing,
  • The dispositional hearing.

Tell the students you will again be viewing an excerpt from the Frontline video. Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION,asking them to put their hands up when they can identify what kind of hearing a juvenile has when the court is deciding between juvenile and adult court. START the video with the introduction of "Manny" by Michel Martin. STOP the video when Michel Martin is on the screen directly preceding Maria Bravo's input. FAST FORWARD to where Judge LaDoris Cordell is discussing "Fitness Criteria." Provide a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION by asking students to jot down the criteria given so that you can discuss where this fits into the above court process. START the tape again and allow it to play until Judge Cordell's description of criteria is over. Ask students why "fitness" is important to the juvenile in question. What are the consequences of not being "fit"?

Have students to log onto: Provide your students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, by asking them to click on the "Juvenile Court Case Flow Chart" and print themselves a copy of a typical juvenile court process for future reference.

Culminating Activity
You Be The Judge
Tell students they will be presented with two cases involving juvenile offenders. They will need to listen closely to the facts presented and decide, to the best of their ability, the person's fate. Even though they will all have specific roles to play, they can all give input into the verdict. The judge's say, however, is final.

Explain to your students that authorities take a number of things into account when making a determination about a juvenile in custody including (Have written on a board for reference during this activity):

  • Whether or not the juvenile is a threat to himself/herself.
  • Whether or not the juvenile is a threat to others.
  • Whether or not the juvenile is likely to run away prior to any scheduled court hearing.
  • The juvenile's age.
  • The offense for which the juvenile is being held.
  • The juvenile's past history.
  • The juvenile's school record.
  • Where and with whom the juvenile is currently living.

Have steps written on board for the activity and read them aloud to class:

  1. Get into groups of 4 (5 can also work),
  2. Each group passes out role numbers,
  3. Record your number for trial one,
  4. Pass your number to the group member on your right,
  5. Record your new number for trial 2,
  6. Role by number
    Judge. Your job is to listen as well and as impartially as possible to all evidence,
    Juvenile Court Attorney. Your job is to try and prove your case against the juvenile in question,
    Defense Attorney. Your job is to offer the best defense possible for your client, the juvenile,
    Juvenile. Your job is to try and remain true to yourself and free.
    Assistant Attorney for either side if needed. Your job is to help the attorney you have chosen.)

Hand out the cases to your student groups giving them 15-20 minutes per trial. You may run into an extra day if enthusiasm is high. Circulate to be available for any questions that may arise, to assess progress, and to keep groups on task.

Call for verdicts, tallying results on board. Discuss differences. Why were these decisions made?

Debrief your students. Ask them what their feelings are on the present justice system. Are there changes that need to be made? Why?

Culminating Activity/Assessment:

You are a 13-year-old. You have just been taken into custody for vandalism to your school. What are your legal rights?


Students research juvenile crime statistics and graph their findings. Students will then predict where we are headed and offer suggestions to mitigate possible problems.

Language Arts
Students will write a story from a juvenile's point of view. The juvenile is currently in a detention facility. The student can use any crime in their story. Talk about your future.

Language Arts/History
Research victim's rights. Find out if age is a distinction. How have these rights developed over time? What part do victims play in the juvenile justice process?

Community Connections

  • Contact local juvenile court/detention officials for a visit to the detention center.
  • Contact local attorneys and/or a judge involved with juvenile crimes for a class question and answer meeting.
  • Research and develop a juvenile rights brochure for distribution in your school.

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