Evolving Standards of Justice: Symposium Explores Past, Present, and Future of Juvenile Justice

Juvenile justice is one of the more dynamic areas of the law. No longer children, not yet adults, juveniles have been subject to more than a century of changing views about how they should be treated within the criminal justice system.


That was the subject of the 12th Annual Access to Equal Justice Colloquium, held recently at the law school. Titled “Evolving Standards of Juvenile Justice: From Gault to Graham and Beyond,” the symposium was hosted by the Juvenile Rights and Re-Entry Project of the Civil Justice Clinic. It brought together about 50 invited legal scholars, social and psychological scientists, public defenders, and other experts for a full day of presentations, panel discussions, and working groups. In all, the program drew nearly 250 attendees to share in these conversations.

Mae Quinn, professor of law and co-director of the Civil Justice Clinic, established the conference’s context by providing a short history of the juvenile justice movement in the United States. Tracing the movement back to late 19th century Progressives, Quinn explained that the intent was to create a separate justice system for juveniles who commit acts that would be crimes for adults.

“Young people were to be excluded from the traditional justice system and instead were to receive individualized treatment in a more rehabilitative and less legalistic setting,” she said.

The idea was that juveniles were a special class of offenders. Their brains had not yet fully formed, for example, suggesting both that they could not yet comprehend their actions and that—with proper intervention—they could be set back on the “straight and narrow.”

Unfortunately, in practice, juvenile offenders were often placed in institutions or homes where they were mistreated. Others found themselves in a system where laws were not interpreted or applied consistently across states. Said Quinn, “Despite the country’s new alleged orientation towards treating juveniles as a class different from adults, there was no clear consensus around which young people were worthy of juvenile court treatment or how that decision should be made.”

Conditions started to change with the “due process revolution” of the 1960s. In the 1966 case Kent v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a 16-year-old boy had been unjustly transferred into the adult legal system to face criminal prosecution. The boy had not had been granted a hearing, the juvenile court had failed to offer reasons for the transfer, and the boy’s attorney was denied access to a social services file that the judicial court used as a basis for its actions.

Writing for the court, Justice Abe Fortas stated that juveniles often faced “the worst of both worlds”—denied both the protections adults enjoyed and the “solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.”

A year later, Justice Fortas again wrote about the juvenile justice system’s failings in the case In re Gault. “Under our Constitution,” he declared, “the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court.”

From the 1970s to the 1990s, the country’s attitude toward juvenile offenders hardened and the juvenile system’s ranks grew. “The number of teens in adult correctional facilities rose from sixteen hundred in 1988, to over nine thousand in 1997,” Quinn noted. In some cases, even the death penalty was carried out against youngsters.

However, social scientists, neurobiologists, and others were making discoveries that tipped the scales back toward protecting youth. In its 2010 Graham v. Florida ruling, for example, the Supreme Court determined that life without parole sentences should be meted out to youth only under extreme circumstances, because, Quinn said, “requiring youth to spend the rest of their natural lives in prison—an extended period of imprisonment when compared to sentences of most adults—was especially harsh.”

With this history as background, many symposium participants brought the discussion to the local level by discussing current issues that the juvenile justice system faces in Missouri today. They also provided evidence that the juvenile justice system of today is trying to return to the good intentions of those who worked in the field more than a century ago.

For example, in a panel on “Ongoing Challenges for Missouri’s Juvenile Courts,” Gary Waint, a deputy for the Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator, called juvenile officers the “gatekeepers” — not only for protecting the public, but also for helping juveniles to be treated fairly and get the services they need. Noting that the juvenile population will decrease through 2015, Waint said that the focus needs to be on reducing the recidivism rate, which is currently about 40 percent during the first three months of release.

Judge Darrell Missey of the Jefferson County Juvenile Court noted that the vast majority of juveniles he works with either have an underlying mental health problem or drug abuse problem. However, in many cases the juvenile system takes on the personality of the judge. Like State Public Defender Cat Kelly, Judge Missy holds that the juvenile court system needs to be about “second chances” and identifying kids who “really need help versus those who are ‘just kids being kids.’”

Finally, Molly Carney, a Washington University law student, said that the juveniles themselves often aren’t asked their opinion or informed about what is happening in the system. “We need to do more to educate the community,” Carney said. “The reason we’re looking for alternatives is to find the way to make the perpetrator a better person.”

The interdisciplinary papers presented at the conference are collected in vol. 38 of the Washington University Journal of Law & Policy. They extend the discussions of the latest thinking about the juvenile justice system, including the overcriminalization of youth based on identity factors, changes in the law relating to child interrogation and self-incrimination, the use of shackles and chains on children, and more. The full text of the articles published in the Journal of Law & Policy will be online on the journal’s website. In the meantime, the table of contents can be viewed here. Visit the event’s website for more information, including videos of the panels.

“Evolving Standards of Justice” Panels and Participants

Setting the Stage: Juvenile Justice, Past to Present—National to Local  

  • Doug Abrams, University of Missouri School of Law
  • Jake Peterson, Washington University Journal of Law & Policy  

Arrested Development: Juvenile Rights and Realities  

  • Tamar Birckhead, University of North Carolina School of Law
  • Ellen Blau, division director, Missouri State Public Defender
  • Patricia Harrison, Saint Louis University School of Law
  • Kristin Henning, Georgetown Law Center
  • J. Benjamin Rosebrough, Washington University law student

Ongoing Challenges for Missouri’s Juvenile Courts  

  • Molly Carney, Washington University law student
  • Cat Kelly, director, Office of Missouri State Public Defender
  • Judge Darrell Missey, Jefferson County Juvenile Court
  • Gary Waint, deputy, Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator

Voices and Visions of Youth Empowerment  

  • Nick Bowens, Northwest Academy of Law student
  • Kailey Burger, founder, Marshall-Brennan Constitutional Literacy Project
  • David Carroll, executive director, North Grand Neighborhood Services
  • Anna Gennari, Washington University Brown School student
  • Shamika Hill, Northwest Academy of Law student
  • Kezia Jones, Angel Baked Cookies

Pushing Back Against Push-Outs: Keeping Kids in Missouri Schools  

  • Valerie Carter-Thomas, principal, Northwest Academy of Law
  • Joseph Dandurand, Missouri Attorney General’s Office
  • Lorena Estrada-Martinez, Washington University Brown School
  • Amanda Schneider, Legal Services of Eastern Missouri

Certified Youth and DMC: What Can We Do to Stem the Tide?  

  • Sarah Jane Forman, Detroit School of Law
  • Dr. Anne Janku, Research Manager, Office of State Courts Administrator
  • Cortney Lollar, Washington University School of Law
  • Mary Marquez, chief juvenile officer, Jackson County Juvenile Court

Prosecutors and Probation: Ethical Responsibilities and Possibilities  

  • Kelley Dunn, New York City Law Department
  • Josh Gupta-Kagan, Washington University School of Law
  • Cynthia Harcourt, legal counsel, St. Louis County Family Court
  • Vivian Murphy, Missouri Juvenile Justice Association

Thinking About the Adolescent Brain and Behaviors  

  • Jaime Michel, National Juvenile Defender Center
  • Dr. Steven Petersen, chief of Neuropsychology, Washington University
  • Dr. Ron Roesch, Forensic Psychology Program, Simon Fraser University
  • Dr. Rachael Springman, Metropolitan St. Louis Psychiatric Center, Pretrial Unit

Parents and Other Partners in Juvenile Justice  

  • Tim Decker, director, Division of Youth Services
  • Tracy McClard, Campaign for Youth Justice & FORJ-MO
  • Malikah Marrus, LMSW, Missouri State University
  • Juan Pena, Washington University, Brown School

Washington University Working With Youth—Engagement from Local to Global  

  • Cheryl Block, Washington University School of Law, Ready Readers Program
  • Martin Histand, Washington University, Project Peanut Butter
  • Kenneth Pruitt, Kingdom House
  • Tiffany Wong, Washington University law student

Questioning Youth/Interrogating Minority  

  • Randy Hertz, New York University Law School
  • Peter Joy, Washington University School of Law
  • Lourdes Rosado, Juvenile Law Center, Philadelphia
  • Dr. Ron Roesch, Forensic Psychology Program, Simon Fraser University

Successes and Lessons from Youth Advocacy  

  • Steve Drizin, Northwestern University Law School
  • Katherine Goldwasser, Washington University School of Law
  • Kim McLaurin, Suffolk Law School
  • Kathryn Pierce, Washington University School of Law
  • Sandra Simkins, Rutgers Law School

Closing Remarks  

  • Robert Kuehn, Associate Dean for Clinical Education, Washington University School of Law