parens patriae | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Introduction / Juvenile Justice

Parens Patriae is a Latin legal phrase referring to the power of the government to provide guardianship of those (especially children) in need of care or supervision.

Parens Patriae is a legal doctrine that has been recognized in many countries, including the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. It gives the government the authority to act as a parent or guardian in cases where individuals, especially children, are in need of care or supervision.

Historical Context of Parens Patriae

In the United States, parens patriae has been an integral part of the juvenile justice system since its inception. The Juvenile Court Act of 1899, which established the first juvenile court in Chicago, was based on the parens patriae doctrine. The court’s primary purpose was to protect and provide care and treatment for juveniles who were considered to be in need of guidance and rehabilitation rather than punishment.

When Parens Patriae Comes Into Play

Under the parens patriae doctrine, the government is considered to have a responsibility to protect and care for those who are unable to care for themselves. This includes children who have been abandoned, abused, or neglected by their parents or guardians. In such cases, the government may intervene to provide for the child’s physical, emotional, and mental well-being.

In the juvenile justice system, the parens patriae doctrine is applied in cases involving delinquent juveniles. The idea is that the government acts as a parent to the juvenile, with the goal of rehabilitating them and addressing the underlying issues that led to their delinquent behavior. This is in contrast to the adult criminal justice system, which focuses on punishment and retribution.

When a juvenile is brought before a juvenile court, the judge may act as a surrogate parent, making decisions in the best interests of the juvenile. This may involve ordering the juvenile to undergo counseling, attend a school or job training programs, or participate in community service. The goal is to provide the juvenile with the skills and resources they need to become productive members of society.

Criticisms of the Parens Patriae Doctrine

However, the parens patriae doctrine has been criticized for its potential to infringe on individual rights and freedoms. Some argue that the government’s authority to act as a parent should be limited to cases where there is clear evidence of abuse or neglect. Others argue that the government’s intervention in the lives of individuals, especially juveniles, should be minimal to avoid unintended consequences.

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Last Modified: 07/12/2023

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