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The Evolution of the Juvenile Court

The Evolution of the Juvenile Court

The Evolution of the Juvenile Court: Race, Politics, and the Criminalizing of Juvenile Justice

By: Barry C. Feld

Podcast Interview

Dr. Barry C. Feld discusses his latest monograph and his career on our podcast, here. This podcast episode was produced by, and originally aired on, the University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice's podcast, Criminal Justice Office Hours. The episode, "The Evolution of the Juvenile Court” originally aired on January 3, 2019. You can browse other episodes of the SHCY podcast, here, or other episode of Criminal Justice Office Hours, here.

The below is a review from the Journal for the History of Children and Youth 12, no. 1 (Winter 2019): 145-147.

The Evolution of the Juvenile Court: Race, Politics, and the Criminalizing of Juvenile Justice
By Barry C. Feld.
New York: New York University Press, 2017. x + 397 pp. Cloth $35.

Historians of the United States have recently taken a “carceral turn” to bet-ter understand life in “prison America,” in Naomi Murakawa’s formulation. Yet in keeping with a broader historiographical tendency to overlook children and youth—to which many readers of this journal will likely attest—scholars of carcerality and policing have generally neglected the child.

That may be beginning to change. New work by multidisciplinary scholar Erica Meiners and historians Elizabeth Hinton and Tera Eva Agyepong, plus forthcoming histories from Matthew Lassiter, Michael Stauch, and Scott De Orio, locate children and youth (and figurations thereof) firmly within the American carceral machinery.

Though legal scholar Barry Feld has been writing about juvenile justice for “more than four decades,” The Evolution of the Juvenile Court makes a clear, timely intervention into the literatures of childhood/youth and carcerality (289). Feld demonstrates how judges, prosecutors, legislators, and other actors—across the career of the juvenile court—have “selectively” deployed competing conceptions of youth as either “immature” or “responsible” in order “to maximize social control of young people” (2). But Feld pays particular attention to the “Get Tough” era of the mid- to late twentieth century—during which, he insists, the juvenile court largely forsook its “diversionary function” in favor of a “lock ’em up” ethos (153).

Feld traces the history of the American juvenile court across four periods. The institution took hold in the Progressive era; reform-minded “child-savers” envisioned “the juvenile court as a benign therapeutic agency” that would mitigate “the harms [of] processing children as criminals” (31). The court’s second phase, initiated by the US Supreme Court’s 1967 In re Gault decision, “transformed juvenile courts from welfare agencies into scaled-down criminal courts” (66). Next, the “Get Tough” period—from the 1970s into the 2000s— witnessed the easing of transfer protocols such that juveniles (especially youth of color) were more readily assigned to adult courts and, consequently, to adult correctional facilities (122). Finally, the “Kids Are Different” era, inaugurated by a series of Supreme Court rulings in the early twenty-first century, has marked a modest retreat from the “Get Tough” moment—even as the United States continues to cage young people at unconscionable rates. (South Dakota, for one, incarcerates nearly 500 juveniles per 100,000.)

While Feld provides a fine overview of the juvenile court, his periodization and historical analysis leave something to be desired. Most notably, to explain the rise of a “Get Tough” ethos in juvenile justice, Feld marshals top-down political developments—namely the historiographically hoary tropes of right- wing “backlash” and “racial political realignment” supposedly touched off by the “classical” black freedom struggle, but which actually has much deeper roots (90). “In the 1960s,” Feld claims, “conservative Republicans decried crime in the streets and advocated law and order. In the 1970s, they supported a war on crime. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan launched a war on drugs. By the 1990s, they waged a war on youth” (99).

This interpretive framework papers over two complicating factors. First, local and state prosecutors and judges (not those at the federal level) make the overwhelming majority of charging and sentencing decisions in juvenile and adult courts alike. This is not to say that national politicking and federal policymaking have no effect on local or state policy, but reconfigurations of the electoral map can only explain so much. To be fair, Feld correctly identifies local and state prosecutors as the main engines of juvenile and adult mass incarceration. However, he ties punitive prosecutorial and legislative action to a national “[a]nti-state populism” which served “to strengthen states’ police powers”—even though antistatism seems incompatible with hyperpolicing and carceral expansion (107).

Second, pinning “Get Tough” policies almost exclusively on Republicans and “conservative Southerners” masks the troubling continuities between the country’s major political parties on racialized “law and order” before, during, and after the sixties (95). As Naomi Murakawa and Jordan Camp illustrate, “national-security” liberals and racial liberals have long fetishized formal legal equality while obscuring the ways in which the law can reify extant structural inequalities. For instance, the superficially egalitarian mayoral administrations of Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Tom Bradley, and others betrayed liberals’ willful embrace of “crime control” strategies in the pursuit of “order” rather than redistributive justice. Historian Max Felker- Kantor, for his part, shows how “both Democrats and Republicans contributed to the building of the carceral state” and “the juvenile justice regime in Los Angeles during the 1970s.”*

These quibbles aside, Feld has delivered an important book that will enrich scholars’ understanding of race and juvenile justice in the recent American past. Though the work might have more closely examined the tensions within, and failures of, the US juvenile justice system since its inception—not just in the “Get Tough” era—Feld nonetheless makes a compelling case for reform and restitution.

Paul M. Renfro
Florida State University

About the Author

Barry FeldmanBarry C. Feld is Centennial Professor of Law Emeritus, University of Minnesota Law School. He received his B.A., University of Pennsylvania; J.D., University of Minnesota Law School; and Ph.D. (Sociology) from Harvard University. He has written or edited eleven books and more than one hundred law review, book chapters, and peer-reviewed criminology articles on juvenile justice with emphases on race, gender, procedural justice, and youth sentencing policy. His Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court (1999), received multiple outstanding book awards. His Kids, Cops, and Confessions: Inside the Interrogation Room (NYU Press 2013), is the first empirical study of police interrogation of serious juvenile offenders and received an outstanding book award in 2015. His most recent book is Evolution of the Juvenile Court: Race, Politics, and the Criminalizing of Juvenile Justice (NYU Press 2017). He has served on numerous state and national law reform commissions, testified before state legislatures and the US Congress, and more than one hundred state and federal courts including the US Supreme Court have cited his scholarship. He is a member of the American Law Institute, a Fellow of the American Society of Criminology, and recipient of several honors and awards for juvenile justice advocacy.

* Max Felker-Kantor, “‘Kid Thugs are Spreading Terror through the Streets’: Youth, Crime, and the Expansion of the Juvenile Justice System in Los Angeles, 1973–1980,” Journal of Urban History 44, no. 3 (2018): 477.

Criminal Justice Office Hours

Dr. Barry Feld, “The Evolution of the Juvenile Court” University of Cincinnati School of Criminal Justice’s podcast—Criminal Justice Office Hours, aired January 3, 2019.  

Episode summary: "Dr. Barry Feld from the University of Minnesota Law School joins the podcast to talk about the evolution of the juvenile court in the United States."

This post is part of the SHCY Featured Books series, in which SHCY members provide written contributions on various academic topics pertaining to the history of childhood and youth.

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