Juvenile Court

II. A Brief History of the Development of the Juvenile Court

In the century prior to the establishment of the juvenile court in 1899, a growing problem of delinquent and impoverished urban youth led states to respond by building houses of refuge. As American migrants and European immigrants began settling in cities to work in factories, they displaced their children from small homogeneous rural communities into densely populated and diverse urban neighborhoods. These new urban settlers found they had less ability to supervise their children while their children had more opportunity to commit crime. The only official methods of controlling delinquent youth were arrest and adult criminal prosecution. Because judges were unwilling to send children to jails or prison, they were let go with no corrective measures taken. Thus, there were only two formal options available: (1) let them go or (2) send them to adult prisons.

Because no state institution existed to handle delinquent youth, prominent Quaker reformers proposed the houses of refuge for the reeducation and rehabilitation of delinquents and impoverished youth. The Quakers reasoned that poor living conditions caused poor parenting and bad behavior by children; therefore, the way to reform delinquent youth was to remove them from the cities and place them in a rural institution. In the houses of refuge, idle youth would learn to behave through industry, basic education, and moral instruction until they became adults, typically their 21st birthday. It did not take long, however, before the need to control the committed youth overcame the reformers’ good intentions. The houses of refuge became what sociologist Irving Goffman called a total institution—where custody became more important than treatment or education.

The legality of removing children from their parents’ homes and placing them in institutions was tested in the case of Mary Ann Crouse in 1826, 1 year after the first house of refuge opened. To prevent her child from becoming a pauper, Mary Ann Crouse’s mother had her committed to the Philadelphia House of Refuge. Mary Ann’s father, however, challenged the commitment and filed a writ of habeus corpus, demanding to know why she was held in custody, because she had committed no offense. The matter was finally settled by the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1838. The court held that the house of refuge was helping MaryAnn Crouse and not punishing her; therefore, the state was acting on behalf of her interests with good intentions. This case established the legal doctrine of parens patriae, which, literally translated, means “parent of the country.” This doctrine allowed the state to take custody of wayward and delinquent youth. The parens patriae doctrine came from English common law and applied to handling the estate of orphaned children. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court, however, applied parens patriae to the Crouse case and established that the state could act as legal guardian even when the parents did not relinquish their rights. The court reasoned that juveniles were being cared for and not punished, so due process rights were not necessary. Thus, Mary Ann Crouse, and juveniles like her who had committed no offense, could be placed legally in an institution along with delinquents.

By the end of the 19th century, the house-of-refuge movement had failed to maintain best interests over punishment. This became evident in the 1870 Illinois Supreme Court case of Daniel O’Connell, which highlighted the fact that poor juveniles were being punished rather than helped (the opposite finding of the Crouse case). In fact, the O’Connell decision outlawed the practice of sending poor youth who had not committed a felony crime to reform schools. Although the case did not overturn Crouse, it highlighted the Illinois Supreme Court’s skepticism about the benign operation of the houses of refuge. The immediate result of the case was that poor youth could not be placed in a house of refuge simply for being poor.

At the beginning of the 20th century, new reformers, called the Progressives or Child Savers, took up the cause of reforming delinquent youth. The Progressive reformers, mostly wealthy Protestant women, had many of the same concerns as the Quaker reformers, but they tried to improve the condition of wayward youth through the latest scientific and professional means, namely, psychology and law. Although they attempted to improve the conditions in the houses of refuge, their enduring legacy would be to establish a legal institution: the juvenile court.

The first juvenile court was founded in Chicago in 1899, with the intent of extending the parens patriae doctrine for all youth in need of care or supervision—the poor, abused, neglected, orphans, delinquents, and the incorrigible. The need for a separate legal institution was due in part to the O’Connell decision that limited the state’s custody to delinquency matters only. In addition, juveniles who did commit delinquency still had to appear before a criminal court judge, who was likely to dismiss the case. The Progressive reformers petitioned the Illinois legislature to create a juvenile court that would have jurisdiction over all youth and could intervene on behalf of the child’s best interests. Because the O’Connell decision had questioned the legitimacy of parens patriae for nondelinquency matters, the Progressives proposed the new court as a civil court rather than a criminal one. Thus, the court could intervene under parens patriae and do so without having to assure due process protections guaranteed in criminal matters. The Progressives envisioned the juvenile court as a social welfare institution rather than a criminal justice agency.

The early juvenile court hearings were less formal than adult criminal trials, to emphasize the treatment orientation over punishment. The judge or master sat at a conference table with the juvenile rather than sitting behind a bench. Caseworkers who investigated the social needs of the youth were also present at the conference and given wide discretion to help the judge decide how to rehabilitate the juvenile. Instead of providing the same treatment for similar petitions in the name of fairness, probation officers tailored outcomes to each juvenile’s special needs. For example, two juveniles who committed the same act under the same circumstances could receive very different outcomes. As mentioned earlier, the founders of the juvenile court movement used terminology that suggested treatment over punishment; for example, they called the delinquency hearing an adjudication instead of trial and the outcome a disposition instead of a sentence. In the early courts, defense counsel and prosecutors were not necessary, because the hearings were not adversarial: The court was acting in the best interests of the child, so due process was unnecessary.

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