Brief History of the Old Juvenile Justice System

The philosophy that underlay the insistence that the penal system ought to lay its emphasis on the reform and rehabilitation of juveniles in conflict with the law, rather than on punishment for their offenses, begun to gain ground in the midnineteenth century in the United States of America and then Europe. By the close of that century, some effort had begun to implement the new ideas.[1] The new philosophy was premised upon the fact that children lacked capacity to make appropriate moral choices. Therefore, they needed to be taken in hand and redirected when they lacked such direction on account of their life’s circumstances or when they had engaged in a conduct that would have been punishable as a crime if done by an adult. Thus, the most important goal of the system was to help give the child in question a fresh start in life, not only by protecting the child from further contamination but also avoiding the stigmatization of the child. The only problem with the system was that children in moral danger (i.e., children at risk of getting into conflict with the law owing to lack of parental guidance or exposure to risky lifestyles) were treated in the same form and manner as children who had engaged in criminal conduct. The use of “delinquent” to describe both groups of children, i.e., the “erring” and the “errant,” obscured the difference in their circumstances, though it shielded the errant juveniles from the tag of “criminal,” and thus gave them a second chance.

Consistent with the philosophy and goals of the system, the juvenile offender had to be separated from the adult offender and subjected to a different penal regime. While the lawbreaking adult was a threat to society and needed to be taught a lesson through the infliction of suffering, the child had to be reoriented and redirected onto the “straight and narrow path,” the focus being the “longterm welfare of the child.”[2] This dichotomy in penal philosophy, in turn, demanded specially designed institutions, such as a special court and also special custodial institutions[3] that made it possible for the state, as the ultimate parent, to exercise guardianship over children and young persons and, with the child’s best interests in mind, to attempt to achieve their reform and rehabilitation.[4]

In 1908, a provision was made for the establishment of juvenile courts in England under the Children’s Act of 1908, and the idea was transplanted into the rest of the common law world via colonial policy. During early 1940s, recruitment into the British war effort in World War II fueled migration to the urban areas and created momentum in the rate of urbanization that produced the usual casualties of rapid social development—neglected children. As people abandoned their traditional homes and family support for life in urban areas, children in need of care grew in such numbers that the establishment of institutions of juvenile justice[5] to deal with the problem became necessary. This historical development created an overhang of emphasis on custody and custodial institutions within the juvenile justice system in Ghana today.[6]

Following the normative shifts and the corresponding statutory changes effected as a consequence, a number of changes occurred to affect the operations of the juvenile justice system. From the age of criminal responsibility, right down to the mechanisms for disposition, through the alteration of a fixed term of detention of a 3-year term, in favor of a variable and graduated term of detention, a lot has changed within the system.

  • [1] The first juvenile court was reputed to have been established in Cook County, Chicago, Illinois, in1899. See Caldwell Robert G, “The Juvenile Court: Its Development and Some Major Problems.”in Juvenile Delinquency, Rose Giallombardo (ed.) p393, John Wiley and Sons, U.S.A., 1976;Thomas F. Geraghty “The Children & Family Justice Center’s 20th Anniversary: SplendidAccomplishments and a Wonderful Future” 6 Nw. J. L. & Soc. Pol’y (2011) 402 at p404.
  • [2] Nicholas Bala and Rebecca Jaremko Bromwich, “Introduction: An International Perspective onYouth Justice” in Juvenile Justice Systems An International Comparison of Problems and SolutionsNicholas M.C. Bala, Joseph P. Hornick, Howard N Snyder (eds.) Thompson EducationalPublishing Inc, Toronto, p6
  • [3] Vedder CB: “Juvenile Offenders” Charles Thomas, Springfield Illinois, 1963, p146, supra
  • [4] Caldwell Robert, op. cit. supra, pp399-400
  • [5] By the middle of 1940s, specific provision had been made for them in the Courts Ordinance of theGold Coast Colony (now Ghana). See the Courts Ordinance 1935 as amended by Ordinance No.23of 1944 and No.26 of 1946. Sections 61-73 of Cap. 4.
  • [6] Robert Kwame Ame, “The Rights of Children in Conflict with the Law in Ghana,” (2011) 19International Journal of Children’s Rights 27-293 HEINONLINE, accessed on 28 August 2015
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