Juvenile Courts in the United States

By Herbert H. Lou | Go to book overview

Chapter II
HISTORY OF THE JUVENILE COURT

1. BACKGROUND OF JUVENILE-COURT LEGISLATION

THE early courts dealt only with neglected and dependent children, with children whose custody rival claimants sought, and with children who were charged with specific offenses. In general, dependent and neglected children have had much less to do with the juvenile-court movement than the delinquent child. The movement was started principally as a protest against the inhumane attitude of the criminal law, and the court that administers it, toward offending children, and only incidentally as a protest against the unorganized charity work of private agencies and the unsatisfactory state provision for the care of neglected and dependent or destitute children.

Various attempts have been made from the early days of English and American history to save offending children from the rigidity of the common law, but the history of law discloses that such attempts were only sporadic and in many instances have accomplished very little.

Stuart Garnett in his book, Children and the Law, tells us that as early as the tenth century, the Saxon King Athelstane not only attempted the reformation of juvenile offenders but enacted a certain law which embodied some of the germs of modern juvenile-court legislation, and especially of probation.1 But there are few records of any children who were accorded the privilege of this and subsequent statutes. From the tenth century until the reign of Henry VIII very little is known of the law affecting children. All through the Middle Ages, true to the general tendency in the criminal law of the time, offending children were treated with great severity which reaches its climax in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A child of eight years, who had "with malice, revenge, craft and cunning" set fire to a barn, was convicted of felony and duly hanged. One boy of ten, who confessed to have murdered his bed-fellow, was condemned to death and "all the judges agreed to the imposition of this penalty because the sparing of this boy simply on account of his tender

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1
W. H. S. Garnett, Children and the Law ( London, 1911), pp. 137-138.

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