The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicagos Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945

The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicagos Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945

The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicagos Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945

The Criminalization of Black Children: Race, Gender, and Delinquency in Chicagos Juvenile Justice System, 1899-1945

Synopsis

In the late nineteenth century, progressive reformers recoiled at the prospect of the justice system punishing children as adults. Advocating that children's inherent innocence warranted fundamentally different treatment, reformers founded the nation's first juvenile court in Chicago in 1899. Yet amid an influx of new African American arrivals to the city during the Great Migration, notions of inherent childhood innocence and juvenile justice were circumscribed by race. In documenting how blackness became a marker of criminality that overrode the potential protections the status of "child" could have bestowed, Tera Eva Agyepong shows the entanglements between race and the state's transition to a more punitive form of juvenile justice.

In this important study, Agyepong expands the narrative of racialized criminalization in America, revealing that these patterns became embedded in a justice system originally intended to protect children. In doing so, she also complicates our understanding of the nature of migration and what it meant to be black and living in Chicago in the early twentieth century.

Excerpt

On June 1, 1922, Ronald Bird, a thirteen-year-old from Kentucky, was pronounced “delinquent” in Chicago’s juvenile court. Ronald was but one among a large stream of southern black children who migrated to Chicago with their parents and found themselves greeted by a new juvenile justice system. The juvenile court labeled Ronald a “delinquent,” a legal term intended to be applied to children who broke the law, even though he had not committed any crimes. Like many similarly situated black children who appeared in juvenile court between 1899 and 1945, Ronald encountered a community so circumscribed by race and divested of resources that his childhood vulnerability was eclipsed by a racialized process for criminalization in the state’s juvenile justice system. The combination of his blackness, extreme poverty, lack of adequate parental care, and youth primed him for being labeled “delinquent” before he even set foot inside the juvenile court.

Abby E. Lane, the principal of the Carter School who submitted the initial petition that led to Ronald being hauled into juvenile court, explained in a letter that although she was alleging the “offense” of “habitual truancy,” he had actually not violated any of Illinois’s compulsory education laws. The laws made habitual non–school attendance punishable by commitment to the Chicago Parental School, a boarding home for children. Lane asserted that Ronald “was perfect in attendance” at school, and her real reason for submitting the petition was because Ronald did not have anyone to take care of him. His parents were unable or unwilling to care for him, and he “left home frequently returning neither for food nor sleep.” And “although [his] attendance had not been such as to warrant making out a Parental School application,” Lane felt, “something should be done to keep him off the streets and away from bad company.” She asked the juvenile court to send him to the “Parental School because [she] knew of no better place for him.” Widespread discrimination against black children in charity homes for children in Chicago and the lack of community resources for children in black neighborhoods meant there were few other alternatives where Ronald could receive care.

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