Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture Copyright © 1993 Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture
All rights reserved.
ISSN 1070-8286

Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 1(5) (1993) 40-43

Juvenile Justice in the United States: A Video History

Director: NA
Release Information: American Correctional Association.
(1991) VHS 24 minutes.
Rating: NR

This video provides a brief historical presentation of the treatment of youth that covers a 200 year time span and highlights society's consistent, but waivering, battle to provide rehabilitation or punishment for persons age 17 and younger. The message is obvious and not new: The juvenile justice system is in a quagmire because of its difficulty (1) dealing with the changing social structural factors that impact youth and (2) striking a balance between the perceived need for treatment and accountability. Illuminated by this video portrayal are both the shortcomings and the advancements in the treatment of youth in trouble or in need of intervention. The limitations and progress of treating youth are illustrated nicely through historical drawings, photos, film clips, and interviews with personnel from the American Correctional Association. Even though the narrators claim that progress has occurred in the overall treatment of juveniles, the video focuses upon the problems that still face those who want to help youth.

The problems cited at the very beginning and at the end of the video are depicted as unique to the 1980's and 1990's. However, the core of the problems facing those concerned with juvenile justice in the 1980's and 1990's parallels the problems and dilemmas that juvenile correctional officers and others experienced during the 200 year period detailed in the video. While this point is implicit in the presentation of the history of juvenile justice, the video makers never make it explicit to the audience. For example, we are informed at the video's start that federal and state budget cuts, funding shortages in the private sector, and a reluctance by citizens to get involved all factored in the systems' reduced ability to accomplish the goal of providing effective treatment in the 1980's and 1990's. At the same time, the use of drugs by youth and their participation in gang activity and violent offending markedly increased. These events, coupled with the perceived decline of moral and traditional societal values, are believed to require a greater need for intervention and treatment of wayward youth. Yet, whether the issue is[End page 40] drug use in the 1980's and 1990's or massive immigration and industrialization in the 1920's and 1930's, the result has been the same historically: a lack of financial support, a lack of facilities, and a lack of a firm commitment from society for the treatment agenda, all combine to hinder juvenile personnel from helping youth. This is a theme that runs throughout this historical presentation, but it is never brought together in a straight forward manner or discussed directly at any point. Overall, there is a failure to develop a strong link between the problems of the past with the problems of today or of those likely to face us in the future.

The video does a fine job presenting the history of juvenile justice in the United States, taking note of the belief that youth are no different than adults, the establishment of the House of Refuge in 1825, the opening of the Lyman State Training School for boys in 1847, the founding of the juvenile court in 1899, the Gault decision in 1967, and the passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974. Both the underlying rationale for and the consequences of each of these transitions in the treatment of youth are discussed in some detail.

The strengths of the video are threefold. First, the historical presentation is informative. Second, the multi media presentation of the historical details of juvenile justice (e.g., photos, speakers, etc.) effectively retains the viewer's interest in the topic. Last, some candid commentary is provided concerning the treatment of youth. For example, the video shows how youth were "placed out" with families moving to the frontier west, only to be exploited as cheap farm labor.

Despite these strengths, the historical presentation omitted important commentary as well as the outcomes of important historical events. For example, nothing is said of the belief that the founding of the juvenile court in 1899 may have been an outgrowth of the women's movement and the special interests of the white middle- class in strengthening their control over the poor as well as nonwhite youth and their families (Platt, 1969). Similarly, the video fails to address the problems with which the juvenile justice system struggled in the 1980's and continue to struggle with in the 1990's. These concerns range from the inability to remove status offenders from the juvenile court to the removal of youth from jails or lock-ups (Schwartz, 1989). An over-[End page 41] reliance on detention facilities (Moore and Kuker, 1993), the disproportionate representation of nonwhites in secure facilities (Pope and Feyerherm, 1990), and the differential treatment of female as compared to male youth (Johnson and Scheuble, 1991) are additional dilemmas that should have been discussed, at least to some degree, in an historical presentation of juvenile justice in America.

An overall rating depends on the course and the purpose that an instructor has for showing this video. If the course in question deals with criminology or juvenile delinquency, and delinquency theory is discussed for the first half or three-quarters of the semester with the remaining time devoted to juvenile justice, the video receives a gavel rating of 3 (good). In this scenario, the video would provide a cursory overview which would likely fit with the objectives of such a course. If the course focuses on juvenile justice, and minimizes the discussion of delinquency theory, the video receives 1 1/2 gavels (poor to average). However, the rating would be higher if the instructor showed the video at the beginning of the course as an introduction to issues that would be addressed in more depth as the semester proceeded. In short, since substance is not a strength of Juvenile Justice in the United States: A Video History, the video is best employed as a general introduction.

Michael J. Leiber, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor
Department of Sociology/Anthropology
University of Northern Iowa


Johnson, David and Scheuble, Laurie K. (1991). "Gender bias in the disposition of juvenile court referrals: The effects of time and location." Criminology, 29(4), 677-699.[End page 42]

Moore, Richard and Kuker, Dave. (1993). A description and discussion of minority overrepresentation in Iowa's juvenile justice system. Des Moines, IA: Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning.

Platt, Anthony. (1969). The child savers. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Pope, Carl and Feyerherm, William. (1990). "Minority status and juvenile justice processing: An assessment of the research literature (Part I)." Criminal Justice Abstracts, June, 327-335.

Pope, Carl and Feyerherm, William. (1990). "Minority status and juvenile justice processing: An assessment of the research literature (Part II)." Criminal Justice Abstracts, September, 527-542.

Schwartz, Ira M. (1989). (In)justice for juveniles: Rethinking the best interests of the child. Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.[End page 43]