In 1926, the Federal government began collecting information on the cases processed by juvenile courts in the United States. Initially approximately 100 courts completed a statistical form on each case they handled and sent these forms to the Children's Bureau of the U.S. Department of Labor. These data were the basis of early Juvenile Court Statistics reports. By the mid-1930's, this case-level data collection effort could no longer be maintained. Instead, courts were asked to complete an annual reporting form, which contained simple counts of the number of delinquency, status offense, dependency, traffic and special proceeding cases that the court had disposed during that year. As a result, the Juvenile Court Statistics report no longer contained the detailed demographic, offense and court-processing information found in the earlier reports. This aggregate reporting continued relatively unchanged into the 1970's when the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) assumed responsibility for the work.

In 1975, the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ), the research division of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, was awarded a grant by OJJDP to continue the national data collection effort, to produce the annual Juvenile Court Statistics report and to explore the possibilities for enhancing data collection procedures. By the mid-1970's, some states were requiring their juvenile courts to complete a reporting form on each case processed. These data were collected at the state level, automated and analyzed to support management, policy and research information needs. NCJJ began to collect these automated case-level data files along with the aggregate data. In many ways the available case-level data files were similar to those collected in the early years of the work. A primary difference, however, was that the data were not uniform; each state had its own reporting requirements and coding instructions. NCJJ developed techniques and procedures to extract a set of commonly defined data elements from these disparate databases. Consequently, the national reports of juvenile court activity once again contained the detailed case-level information that had been unavailable since the early 1930's. As a by-product of the national reporting effort, NCJJ developed an extensive set of data files detailing the workloads of juvenile courts across the Nation.

The National Juvenile Court Data Archive currently contains over 15 million automated case records. Although some states' data contain traffic and dependency cases, the majority are delinquency and status offense records. While the information on each case varies across the individual data sets, nearly all records contain demographic information on the youth (e.g., age at referral, gender, race, county of residence), the offense(s) charged, the date of referral, the processing characteristics of the case (e.g., detention and manner of handling), and the case disposition.

In summary, since the 1920's the primary function of the juvenile court reporting project has been to provide empirical information on the activities of the Nation's juvenile courts to support policy and program development. From 1975 to the present this has been accomplished through the collection, documentation and analysis of millions of automated case records as well as aggregate case counts. These data are a major national resource. Experience has shown that they can support a wide range of basic, applied and legal research. The National Juvenile Court Data Archive makes these data files available to researchers and policymakers. In addition, if requested, Archive staff provides customized analyses of the data files. In all, the goal of the Archive is to improve the juvenile justice system through the collection, documentation and dissemination of the detailed information collected on youth who are processed by the Nation's juvenile courts.