51:5 From Pioneer to Punisher: America’s Quest to Find Its Juvenile Justice Identity


From its founding, the American juvenile justice system has struggled with the best approach to handling young offenders. Initially, American juvenile courts embraced benevolent ideals and sought rehabilitative solutions that addressed the unique situation that children presented. This approach served as a model to the rest of the world, one that had tremendous influence throughout the international community. Yet over time, the flaws of this system began to surface, compelling the Supreme Court to intervene in the 1960s.

Thereafter, the juvenile justice system took a dramatic shift, turning its back on the system’s foundational ideals and instead placing greater emphasis on procedural formality and punishment. This new philosophy manifested itself most evidently in America’s juvenile sentencing practices, which readily embraced the death penalty and life without parole, even in the face of intense international opposition. Consequently, for several decades, the United States stood alone in how it treated juvenile offenders.

Despite this setback, the United States has recently taken positive steps toward rejoining the international community in this area of the law, due in large part to a string of Supreme Court cases beginning in 2005. While such progress is noteworthy, the United States cannot stop here. Instead, America should harness this judicial momentum and completely abolish juvenile life without parole, thereby taking yet another positive step in its quest to regain its role as a leader in juvenile justice.