Date of Award


Document Type

Open Access Dissertation


Criminology and Criminal Justice


College of Arts and Sciences

First Advisor

John D. Burrow


The first American juvenile court opened in 1899, with the understanding that children and adults are fundamentally different, and as such, should be treated differently by the law. Less than 50 years later, every state within the United States had developed a separate juvenile justice system, along with the adoption of many significant statutes that made the juvenile court markedly different from the adult criminal court. Over time, however, dissatisfaction with numerous inadequacies in the juvenile court led to the “due process revolution” of the 1960’s and 1970’s. The legal and philosophical changes made during this time were not long lasting as they were in turn followed by an increasing public concern about serious and violent juvenile crime in the 1980's and early 1990s. A new “get tough” era emerged and it increasingly blurred lines between the juvenile and adult criminal court.

From the conceptualization of childhood in the 16th century, to the creation of the juvenile justice system and up until the present day, shifting social forces in society and juvenile justice system reforms have created paradigm shifts in how adolescents are viewed with regards to their competence and culpability. These juvenile justice system reforms have also reshaped how punishment systems for juveniles operate. Despite these changes, we still do not know the extent to which it has succeeded in reducing violent crime among juveniles, much less how we tease out what juveniles are and are not capable of being “saved.”

Similarly, there is a paucity of literature with regards to how culpability and competence are constructed across different types of adolescents. Importantly, we still have a number of questions about how culpability and competence is constructed for juveniles. Moreover, concerns regarding how we should compare and contrast different types of juveniles, including how serious and violent juvenile offenders are offered different sentencing options have not yet been resolved. While the extant literature with regards to the juvenile court and youthful offending is broad and rich, there is still a need to connect juvenile and community characteristics for this group of offenders and their sentencing outcomes. Thus, in light of the gaps in the literature, the present study seeks to accomplish two objective: 1) to investigate and compare the social and legal forces that inform our construction of culpability for juvenile offenders and 2) to investigate how individual-level factors, community-level factors, and focal concerns affect dispositional decisions for serious and violent juvenile offenders.

Overall, results indicated support for the postulates of focal concerns. In particular, race was found to influence more punitive dispositions. This finding was sometimes influenced by the interaction of community context, which often times also lent themselves towards different dispositions when not interacting with race. However, various different community make-up variables (e.g., percent single mothers, percent black population) also influenced adjudication decisions independently. The makeup of a judicial bench, in other words benches with minorities and females present, also influenced the direction of adjudication decisions; size of the circuit also played an important role in adjudication decision. There was also evidence suggesting that age and concentrated disadvantage mattered in adjudication decisions. These findings, what they mean for race and public policy, as well as the future direction and limitations of this research are discussed.