"The Cop Will Get You": The Police and Discretionary Juvenile Justice, 1890-1940

By Wolcott, David | Journal of Social History, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview
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"The Cop Will Get You": The Police and Discretionary Juvenile Justice, 1890-1940


Wolcott, David, Journal of Social History


Since the latter half of the nineteenth century, the police have been the foremost public authorities who regulate juvenile crime and delinquency. More often than not, police tactics have been portrayed as crudely punitive, rather than sympathetic to children and youth. Child welfare reformers, writing about the conditions in which adolescents grew up in turn-of-the-century cities, regularly characterized the police as all-too-eager to discipline teenagers for any offense, major or minor. They viewed policemen as brutish, blue-coated enforcers who would arrest a young shop-lifter or a truant unable to account for himself "just to keep him out of mischief." (1) Parents and educators often portrayed the police as bogeymen, warning children that if they did nor behave, "the cop will get you." (2) Films about delinquency--ranging from Dead End (1937) to West Side Story (1961)--regularly presented police officers as comic foils who tried desperately, but failed in the end, to discipline disorderly youth. (3) These characterizations rang true because they reflected popular understandings that the police were the principal public agents responsible for managing juvenile misbehavior on a day-to-day basis. At the same time, these cartoonish images failed to capture the complexity of police interactions with youth.

Surprisingly, the role of the police has often been forgotten in historical studies of juvenile justice. In fact, the whole process of regulating delinquency on the streets and of informally disciplining juvenile offenders has received little historical treatment. The purpose of this essay is to introduce themes and to suggest methods for analyzing how juvenile crime and delinquency were regulated in the past, with special attention to regulation "from the bottom up." Focusing on everyday interactions between police officers and disorderly youth in three American cities between 1890 and 1940, I demonstrate how the exercise of discretionary authority by the police shaped the operations of late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century juvenile justice.

Historical and Theoretical Considerations

Most historical studies of juvenile justice--the system of separate laws and judicial, social welfare, and correctional institutions for children and youth--focus on how these laws and institutions developed and how they reflected changing conceptions of childhood. Although a wide variety of public and private reform schools and child welfare agencies were created in the nineteenth century to treat delinquent youth, young people who were arrested were still processed in the same courts as adults. In Illinois, for example, the 1827 criminal code set the age of criminal responsibility at ten years. By the end of the nineteenth century, however, courts and penal institutions faced mounting criticism for treating children as if they were fully-responsible adults. As an alternative, social reformers advocated the creation of separate courts for juveniles. These would not only control adolescent misbehavior but would also seek to determine the underlying sources of delinquency and provide social services aimed at e liminating these problems. Most famously, a coalition of Chicago reformers--including the Chicago Women's Club, the Chicago Bar Association, and Jane Addams' Hull House social settlement--successfully lobbied for the passage of the Illinois Juvenile Court Act, establishing the nation's first juvenile court in Cook County (Chicago) in 1899. Rapidly duplicated in other cities, juvenile courts became the centerpieces of larger systems of juvenile justice designed with the explicit intention of helping, rather than punishing, young offenders. (4)

Early interpretations of juvenile court tend to portray it as an embodiment of Progressive-era ideals that developed between the mid-1890s and the mid- 1910s. Scholars such as Herbert Lou and, more recently, Joseph M. Hawes presented juvenile court as the result of an emerging Progressive social philosophy that the state was responsible to intervene in children's social and familial relations in order to rescue them from delinquency.

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