What are the goals of juvenile courts?

As with adult courts, juvenile court goals are a mix of rehabilitation, punishment, and community safety.


Though juvenile courts bear some similarities to their adult counterparts, there is an overarching paternalism where minors are concerned. That paternalism stems in part from an English concept called parens patriae (Latin for “parent of the country”). Under this concept, minors really belong to the government; parents are only their temporary custodians. Juvenile and family courts, as an arm of the government, are therefore ultimately responsible for minors.

Programs in the juvenile justice system often reflect this paternalistic attitude toward minors. For example, judges may follow “tough love” or “scared straight” programs out of the belief that juveniles benefit from a strict but caring approach.

Competing Goals

In keeping with the paternalistic attitude, juvenile courts have traditionally considered children less dangerous and more amenable to rehabilitation than adults. As a result, minors who commit crimes often receive counseling and remain at home in lieu of going to jail.

However, arguing that minors increasingly commit more and worse crimes at younger ages, advocates of punishment and community safety urge juvenile courts to incarcerate young criminals. The result is a tension between allowing children to become productive members of society and keeping them away from people they could hurt.

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