The system has long been charged with rehabilitating youth offenders — while also facing demands for harsh punishments and oversight
A juvenile detention center in Bowling Green, Ky. (Grace Ramey/Lexington Herald-Leader/AP)
“I have a hatred for young offenders.”
So begins our introduction to Netflix’s wildly popular “Juvenile Justice” and its lead character, a newly appointed juvenile court judge, Sim Eun-seok. Eun-seok’s self-declared hatred of juvenile offenders is contrasted with her co-worker, juvenile court judge Cha Tae-ju, himself a reformed juvenile offender, who joined the court as an impassioned advocate for youths.
Together the judges navigate the complicated cases before them, including homicide, domestic abuse and academic cheating scandals, in addition to the frustrations of bureaucracy and judicial politics. The show highlights the complex intersections of youth and crime, where young offenders are often struggling with homelessness, parental neglect, abuse and sexual violence. Over the course of 10 episodes, we witness Judge Sim and Judge Cha confront their own beliefs about the mission of juvenile justice, as well as advocate for its place within Korean society when the court falls under scrutiny for being too lenient on juvenile offenders.
This show comes at a time when young people’s rights are under attack. Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt juvenile justice advocates a blow in the 2021 Jones v. Mississippi decision, which upheld life sentences for juvenile offenders. Although it takes place in today’s South Korea, this Netflix show mirrors ongoing efforts to erode the unique protections promised to youths since juvenile courts were created in Chicago 1899. Criticism of juvenile courts — typically by hard-liners who wanted to see young people tried in the adult court system instead — has long reflected evolving anxieties about youths, families and crime in the United States.
The first juvenile court emerged out of Cook County, Ill., in 1899 amid Progressive-era changes to notions of childhood and child welfare. Americans were moving away from thinking of childhood as something that only existed within the private realm of the home and family, toward recognizing a broader social responsibility for the welfare of children. Reformers advocated for child labor laws, compulsory education and, eventually, the juvenile court. The idea was that society should not only punish but also provide care for youths who were the victims of neglect, abandonment or abuse, as well as those arrested on suspicion of delinquent behavior.
Yet the court’s mission to protect youths from being subject to adult-level punishment was not universally accepted. While advocates of the court praised it as a sign of modernity, critics lambasted the court as facilitating neglectful parenting and unruly behavior by youths. To critics, the court represented an unnecessary intrusion into family life in ways that benefited neglectful parents and emboldened juvenile delinquents.
Juvenile court legislation was soon adopted not only across the United States but all over the world by the mid-1930s. But it wasn’t without pushback. One Houston-area district attorney declared the juvenile court “an absolute failure.” Texas law enforcement agencies reported harassment and chaos spurred by defiant young people knowing they had the protection of the juvenile court. In the eyes of the district attorney, the court’s very existence prevented law enforcement from doing its job and fueled the “bad boys’ desire to be devilish.” This new court had seemingly upended social norms between youths and adults.
Critics turned their attention to a new problem during World War II, blaming juvenile courts for not doing enough to address the alleged rise of delinquency. Juvenile delinquency was understood as a reaction to the social upheaval of the war, of family relocations and family separation. With fathers at war and mothers at work outside the home in greater numbers, young people were unsupervised and running the streets, according to critics.
Now, instead of rejecting the juvenile court, critics sought for it to act as the enforcer of the American way of life by dealing with delinquent youths and inadequate parents. They invited it to become more involved in controlling the youths of America. Soon, school programs and camps were launched as a scare tactic to warn youths about the dangers of ending up in front of a juvenile court judge.
The return of many fathers to work and mothers to the domestic sphere at the end of the war, and the rise of Cold War domesticity, did not appease concerns about young people running amok. Rather, the 1950s saw a national moral panic that insisted the juvenile court do more about gang fights, truancy, drug use and promiscuity. So tangible was this national panic over delinquency and the rising social capital of youths in adult society that Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.) would lead a subcommittee hearing on the topic in 1954. Concerned parents and politicians pointed to mass media, youth culture and consumerism as the causes behind juvenile delinquency and pressed for the juvenile court to take it more seriously.
Against this backdrop of social anxieties and moral panic, juvenile courts were called upon to be the enforcer of social norms. The juvenile justice system became involved in films and television specials to scare youths away from delinquency. Law enforcement, working through juvenile courts, became increasingly dependent on industrial schools, state institutions that in theory operated as rehabilitative school environments but in practice resembled punitive adult prisons. Investigations into these facilities throughout the 1950s revealed widespread abuses, but judges continued to send youths to them with little oversight.
But calls for harsher treatment of young people in the legal system came to a head in the 1960s, as the Warren court was expanding access to due process in cases like Brady v. Maryland (1963) and Miranda v. Arizona (1966). The growing social unrest and counterculture pushed for greater protections for individuals who found themselves in a court of law. This would soon extend to youths.
In the 1960s, the case of Gerald Gault from Globe, Ariz., and his years-long sentence for the insignificant crime of a prank phone call grabbed the attention of local attorney Amelia Lewis. Lewis saw the existing juvenile court as one that offered youths none of the protections of adult defendants while still subjecting them to adult-sized punishments. Her sympathy toward the plight of Gault’s mother, who was not notified of her son’s arrest, hearing or even the charges he faced, moved Lewis to take on the case and fight for Gault at the Arizona Supreme Court, before the case was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gault and held that youths were entitled to some (not all) of the due process protections afforded to adults, such as the right to an attorney and cross-examination. Notably absent in the ruling was the right to trial by jury and the right to be found guilty by the standard “beyond a reasonable doubt.” The Gault ruling gave youths similar due process protections to adults — but did little to address the continual problems of harsh sentencing, abusive detention centers, or the transfer of children into the adult criminal court.
These contradictions and tensions are at the heart of the debate over contemporary juvenile justice in America and the world. The simplification of youth crime, or perhaps more poignantly the fear of youth crime, has clouded our popular understanding of juvenile justice. Popular portrayals of juvenile justice have long been filled with morality tales to warn against the perils of juvenile delinquency, or genre films that treat youth crime as exploitation. But in either approach juvenile justice is barely examined critically or honestly.
“Juvenile Justice” points to the nuance that can be found when one looks beyond juvenile justice as a “law and order” hot take. The show is an opportunity to see beyond the tabloid exploitation of youth crime, and it encourages viewers to think about juvenile justice as a relatively new and evolving legal system that, while not perfect, has withstood attacks and erosions.
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