Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Century Ago, Reformers Proved That Prisons Don't Help Wayward Children. Now America Is Learning That Lesson All over Again

By Krisberg, Barry | The American Prospect, September 2005 | Go to article overview

Reforming Juvenile Justice: A Century Ago, Reformers Proved That Prisons Don't Help Wayward Children. Now America Is Learning That Lesson All over Again


Krisberg, Barry, The American Prospect


IN 1899, ILLINOIS AND COLORADO established a new "Children's Court." The idea was to substitute treatment and care for punishment of delinquent youths. These changes were promoted by child advocates such as the famous social activist Jane Addams and crusading judges like Denver's Ben Lindsey, as well as influential women's organizations and bar associations. Over the next 20 years, the concept of a separate court system for minors spread to most states. Although the new children's court movement lacked adequate resources to fulfill its lofty mission, the intellectual promise was virtually unchallenged for two-thirds of the 20th century.

Several key assumptions lay behind the juvenile-court idea. First, children were not just "small adults," and they needed to be handled differently. Second, there was a need for specially trained legal and correctional professionals to work with minors. Third, placing children in adult prisons and jails made them more antisocial and criminal. And finally, the emerging science of rehabilitation could rescue many of these troubled young people from lives of crime. In the intervening years, a wealth of research has validated each of these premises.

Despite broad support within the academic, legal, and social-work professions, the ideal often failed to live up to its promise. Over time, the juvenile-justice system in many states reverted to the punitive approach it was designed to replace. Though they were often called "training schools," the institutions were juvenile prisons. And the premise that the court, by definition, was acting "in the best interest of the child" left young offenders without the rights guaranteed to adult criminal defendants. There were repeated accounts of abusive practices. The duration of confinement was often unrelated to the severity of the offense. Juvenile hearings were usually secret, with no written transcripts and no right to appeal. Minors were not provided legal counsel, there were no safeguards against self-incrimination, and offenders were denied liberty without the due process of law guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution.

A series of legal challenges culminated in the landmark 1967 Supreme Court decision In Re Gault. Writing for the Court, Justice Abe Fortes proclaimed, "Under our Constitution, the condition of being a boy does not justify a kangaroo court." Reviewing the case of 15-year-old Gerald Gault, who was sentenced to six years in an Arizona youth correctional facility for making an obscene phone call, the Court decreed that minors be afforded most of the due-process rights required in adult criminal courts.

Gault signaled a new era of reforms. One was a movement to divert as many youths as possible from the formal court system and to decriminalize "juvenile status offenses" such as truancy, running away, curfew violations, and incorrigibility. The 1970s witnessed widespread efforts to deinstitutionalize or "decarcerate" youngsters, moving them from secure detention centers and training schools to community-based programs that emphasized education and rehabilitation.

The most dramatic example came in 1972 in Massachusetts, where a respected reformer closed all of the state juvenile facilities and started over. Jerome Miller had been recruited to the state Department of Youth Services (DYS) to clean up a range of scandals and abuses. He encountered an intransigent bureaucracy. Corrections officers opposed even such modest reforms as letting youngsters wear street clothing instead of prison uniforms, or not requiring that their heads be completely shaven. Undeterred, Miller decided to close down the state's network of jail-like training schools. As the young inmates of the notorious Lyman School were loaded onto a bus that would take them to dorms at the University of Massachusetts, to be housed temporarily until being reassigned to community programs, one top Miller deputy proclaimed to the shocked guards, "You can have the institutions; we are taking the kids. …

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