The Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 1976: Operation, Constitutional Vulnerability, and Effect


The New York State Legislature, in its first major reevaluation of the juvenile code in over half a century, recently enacted the Juvenile Justice Re-form Act of 1976. The Act was passed in response to public concern over what has been considered to be an alarming increase in the frequency and seriousness of crime committed by youths. It was also inspired by two recent studies documenting the weaknesses of the present system of juvenile justice. The Act substantially amends the provisions of juvenile law which were de- rived from the late nineteenth century theory of juvenile reform.  The most important amendment of the Act expands the premise of prior legislation from a regard for the best interests of the youth to include a concern for community protection.

The existing separate system of juvenile justice was designed to remove vulnerable and malleable children from a callous correctional system oriented towards retribution, isolation, and deterrence.6 Individualized treatment for juveniles was to be the quid pro quo for the independent system. Under this system the state, as parens patriae, appointed a guardian to protect the “best interests” of youths who had strayed from the path leading to socially acceptable adulthood. The primacy of rehabilitation over punishment was viewed as justifying informal proceedings in which the juveniles’ rights were adjudicated without regard for procedural due process protections such as trial by jury otherwise deemed fundamental in the American criminal justice system.

The Act codifies the traditional best interests test under which court ordered dispositions are predicated on the rehabilitative needs of each individual youthful offender. It further directs the court, in any juvenile delinquency proceeding, to “consider . . . the need for protection of the community.” The drafters of the Act recognized that a potential conflict exists between these two fundamental concerns of the state-the best interests approach to juvenile justice and the concern for community protection. They maintained, however, that “the legislation . . . reflects a belief that neither set of needs can be served unless they both are served.”

The inherent power to restrict individual liberty for purposes of community protection is reserved to the states in the United States Constitution as the power to legislate for the protection of the safety, health, morals, and general welfare of society. After introducing the provisions of the Act, this Note will examine whether additional conformity with the constitutional mandates of due process is required by the express recognition of the goal of community protection. The best interests approach to juvenile justice was the quid pro quo justifying the suspension of jury trials in juvenile proceedings. Under the Act rehabilitation is no longer the sole justification for commitment. Removing the justification for procedural laxity in juvenile proceedings now requires that thefull panoply of constitutional due process protections be afforded to juvenile offenders.

This Note will further examine potential constitutional challenges to the Act and discuss the Act’s approach to the deficiencies inherent in the pre-1976 juvenile justice system.

Suggested Reading