2014 marks a milestone year for the protection of children. 115 years ago, Illinois passed the Juvenile Court Act of 1899, the nation’s first such law recognizing that children enmeshed in the criminal justice system require specialized treatment. Juvenile crime was a pressing problem of the late nineteenth century, especially in poor immigrant city neighborhoods, and the only legal remedy was to try children as adults and incarcerate them with older offenders. Reform-minded Chicagoans began campaigning for an alternative, and pressed for the enactment of this law, authorizing judges to find that children were delinquent, dependent, or neglected, and encouraging alternatives to jail, including probation at home or in a foster home, or placement in a training school or reformatory.
40 years ago, as described by Betsy Clark, President of the Illinois Juvenile Justice Initiative, the United States Passed the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act. The act, as amended, provides funding to states that provide certain protections for the care and treatment of youth in the justice system: Deinstitutionalizing (not jailing) “status” offenders (things that would not lead to jail for adults, such as for runaways, truants or curfew violators); preventing contact between juvenile and adult offenders, including separate jails for adults and children; and efforts to address the over-representation of minority youth in the juvenile justice system. With the act, came the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which sponsors research, program and training initiatives supporting innovative prevention and intervention strategies.
25 years ago, the United Nations adopted the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Recognizing the unique vulnerabilities of children, the CRC bans the death penalty and life without parole for children under the age of 18, and emphasizes the right to survival, adequate nutrition, education, health care, and protection against abuse, neglect , exploitation, abduction or sale. The United States (through President Clinton) signed the treaty in 1995, thereby broadly endorsing its principles, but the U.S. Senate has not ratified it, making the United States one of just three countries that is not party to the treaty — the two others are Somalia and South Sudan. Reportedly, Somalia has just re-committed itself to ratifying the convention, and South Sudan’s parliament has passed a bill to ratify it. The treaty would not strip parents of their rights, contrary to some internet-generated rumors. Rather, the Convention emphasizes the important role, authority and responsibility of parents and family. Opponents frequently stoke fears that the Convention would usurp American sovereignty. To address such concerns, the United States generally ratifies human-rights pacts with the condition that they will not overrule existing laws. Nonetheless, the Convention has never been put to a vote in the U.S. Senate, on the assumption that it would be defeated. .Only recently, the United States Supreme Court declared unconstitutional application of the death penalty for those who commit crimes as children and, as explained in a prior post, the issue of life in prison without the possibility of parole remains an issue in some states despite recent rulings declaring such a sentence unconstitutional in some circumstances.