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The American juvenile justice system is aimed towards punishing and rehabilitating adolescents who exhibit criminal behavior. The intentions of the juvenile justice system are to intervene early in delinquent behavior and act to prevent adolescents from engaging in criminal behavior as adults. The system involves incarceration (See Youth incarceration in the United States), as well as alternative schooling programs. The number of adolescents affected by the juvenile justice system has grown with the rise of zero tolerance policies in schools, which enforce harsh punishment for any activity by students that is deemed unsafe or threatening to a safe learning environment. The American juvenile justice system today is characterized by controversy. Some scholars, such as Laura Finley, argue that the system criminalizes and mistreats children, and that the policies surrounding juvenile delinquency stem from fear of adolescents and government failure to recognize children as having political and social rights. 
Punishment for juvenile delinquency can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when crimes were punished severely by the Church. Children in this era were not considered to have special rights and protections, and were punished in the same manner as adults.  Early colonies in the United States employed similar attitudes toward juvenile delinquency. Early arguments revolved around whether or not there should be a separate legal system for punishing juvenile delinquency, or if juveniles should be sentenced in the same manner as adults. The nineteenth century saw the opening of the first programs targeting juvenile delinquency. Barry Krisberg and James F. Austin note that the first ever institution dedicated to juvenile delinquency was the New York House of Refuge in 1825. Other programs, described by Finley, included: “houses of refuge”, which emphasized moral rehabilitation; “reform schools”, which had widespread reputations for mistreatment of the children living there; and “child saving organizations”, social charity agencies dedicated to reforming poor and delinquent children.  In 1899, a distinct court system was established to deal with juvenile delinquency. 
Debate about morality and effectiveness surrounded juvenile courts until the 1950s . The 1960s through the 1980s saw a rise in attention to and speculation about juvenile delinquency, as well as concern about the court system as a social issue. This era was characterized by distinctively harsh punishments for youths. There was also a new focus on providing minors with due process and legal counsel in court. Criticism in this era focused on racial discrimination, gender disparities, and discrimination towards children with mental health problems or learning disabilities.
In the late 1980s, the United States experienced a large increase in crime, and juvenile crime was brought into public view (see Juvenile delinquency in the United States). Americans feared a "juvenile super-predator", and this fear was met with harsher policy on juvenile crime by government. In the 1990s, juvenile crime – especially violent crime – decreased, although policy remained harsh. Schools and politicians adopted zero tolerance policies with regard to crime, and argued that rehabilitative approaches were less effective than strict punishment.This period also involved some development of alternative programs to the juvenile court system. Some of these alternatives were “peaceable schools”, where peace and cooperation were integrated into curriculum in order to prevent crime, and “diversion programs” intended to keep students from being labeled as criminals and prevent recidivism by keeping students out of the public court system.
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, in 2011 there were a total of 1,236,200 cases handled by the juvenile courts. 891,100 cases dealt with males, compared with 345,100 for females. The most prominent age group represented in the courts is 13 to 15 years, which make up 552,000 of the total cases. 410,900 of the cases involved Black adolescents, which represents about one-third of the total court cases. The number of cases handled by the juvenile courts in the United States was 1,159,000 in 1985, and increased steadily until 1998, reaching a high point of 1,872,700. After this point, the number of cases steadily declined until 2011.
Residential placement refers to any facility in which an adolescent remains on-site 24 hours a day. These facilities include detention centers, group homes, shelters, correctional facilities, or reform schools.  According to census data of Juveniles in residential placement and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the number of youths in juvenile detention centers in the United States has declined in the past two decades. The number of adolescents incarcerated peaked in 1995, with 107,637 in confinement in a single day. In contrast, there were fewer than 62,000 adolescents in residential placement in October 2011. Juvenile offenders are placed either in public facilities operated by the State or local government, or private facilities operated by separate corporations and organizations. Private facilities are smaller than public facilities. Half of all juvenile placement facilities in the US are privately operated, and these facilities hold nearly one-third of juvenile offenders. 
Since 1995, the rate of confinement has dropped by 41%, and the rate has decreased among all major racial groups in the US. However, disparities by race remain apparent: in 2010, 225 youths per 100,000 were in confinement. When separated by race, there were 605 African-Americans, 127 Non-Hispanic Whites, 229 Hispanics, 367 Native Americans, and 47 Asian/Pacific Islanders in confinement per 100,000. African-Americans are close to five times more likely to be confined than white youths, while Latino and Native Americans are two to three times more likely to be confined than white youths.  Racial disparities in confinement are relatively constant across states.
Since 1997, 44 states and the District of Columbia have experienced a decrease in incarceration of adolescents. As of 2010, only 1 in 4 juveniles in confinement were incarcerated as a result of a violent crime (homicide, robbery, sexual assault, aggravated assault). Additionally, 40% of juvenile delinquency cases and detentions are a result of offenses that are not considered threats to public safety. These include underage possession of alcohol, truancy, drug possession, low-level property offenses, and probation violations. 
According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, females constitute 14% of juveniles in residential placement in 2011. Of these females, 61% belong to racial minority groups. The most common age of offenders was 17 years old, with 17,500 in placement in 2011. Juveniles aged 12 and under accounted for 1% of all youth in placement. 
Much of the criticism about the American juvenile justice system revolves around its effectiveness in rehabilitating juvenile delinquents. Research on juvenile incarceration and prosecution indicates that criminal activity is influenced by positive and negative life transitions regarding the completion of education, entering the workforce, and marrying and beginning families. According to certain developmental theories, adolescents who are involved in the court system are more likely to experience disruption in their life transitions, leading them to engage in delinquent behavior as adults.
Lois M. Davis et al. argue that adolescents are affected by a juvenile system that does not have effective public policies. Currently the juvenile system has failed to ensure that all youth in the system with learning disabilities or mental health issues, and from lower-class individuals and racial minorities are provided with the benefits for a productive life once out of the system. In 2013 30% of youth in system have a learning disability and nearly 50% test below grade level. They argue that the juvenile justice system should be restructured to more effectively lower the chances of future crime among youth, and advocate for increased educational programs for incarcerated youth as the most important method to reduce recidivism.
Many scholars stress the importance of reforming the juvenile justice system to increase its effectiveness and avoid discrimination. Finley argues for early intervention in juvenile delinquency, and advocates for the development of programs that are more centered on rehabilitation rather than punishment. James C. Howell et al. argue that zero tolerance policies overwhelm the juvenile justice system with low risk offenders and should be eliminated. They also argue that the most effective ways to reform the juvenile justice system would be to reduce the overrepresentation of minorites and eliminate the transfer of juveniles to the criminal justice system. Zimring and Tannenhaus also discuss the future of the juvenile justice system in the United States. They argue that educational reentry programs should be developed and given high importance alongside policies of dropout prevention. Reentry programs focus on providing care and support to juveniles after being released from detention facilities, and encouraging family support to help adolescents during this adjustment period. They also argue for the elimination of juvenile sex offender registration requirements, and the reform of criminal record information for juvenile offenders.
Some popular suggested reforms to juvenile detention programs include changing policies regarding incarceration and funding. One recommendation from the Annie E. Casey Foundation is restricting the offenses that are punishable by incarceration, so that only youth who present a threat to public safety are confined. Other suggestions include investing in alternatives to incarceration, changing economic incentives that favor incarceration, and establishing smaller, more humane and treatment-oriented detention centers for the small number who are confined. 
|url=scheme (help). National Association of School Psychologists Online. National Association of School Psychologists. Retrieved 4 November 2014.
|url=scheme (help). Justice Center: The Council of State Governments - Collaborative Approaches to Public Safety. CSG Justice Center. Retrieved 4 November 2014.