Magazine article Corrections Today

Increasing Collaboration between Family Courts and Juvenile Justice

Magazine article Corrections Today

Increasing Collaboration between Family Courts and Juvenile Justice

Article excerpt

Editor's Note: An interview with South Carolina Family Court Judge R. Wright Turbeville is included as a sidebar to this article on pages 118 and 120.

On July 3,11-year-old Henry Campbell's mother hauled him into court. Henry was charged with petty larceny, and the judge sentenced him to live at his grandmother's house. The year was 1899 and the location was Cook County, Ill. -- site of America's first juvenile court.

Had Henry been born a few years earlier, before Americans accepted the wisdom of creating separate courts for children, his sentence might have been death. Absurd, but true. To help understand why, this article will look at the evolution of both juvenile courts and the juvenile justice system in America.

Evolution of Juvenile Courts

Until the late 19th century, no formal differentiation had been made between society's response to crimes committed by children and its response to crimes committed by adults. Children were routinely jailed with adults, sentenced to labor and often brutalized, according to Richard A. Mendel in Less Hype, More Help: Reducing Juvenile Crime, What Works and What Doesn't. In major cities, it was common for jails to hold hundreds of children, some as young as 8. Many came from tenement housing and often were arrested for stealing food or coal. Even children as young as 7 could be brought to trial in criminal court and, if found guilty, could be sentenced to prison or even death. Voices of reason were too few to be heard above the shouts of the masses: "Toss them in jail and throw away the key."

The late 19th century American movement that established a separate court for juveniles has its roots in 16th century European education reform movements. The early reforms changed the legal perception of children from that of miniature adults to that of people who are inherently different from adults, less culpable for their actions and more amenable to rehabilitation. The British doctrine of "parens patriae" (the state as parent) became the rationale for the right of the state to intervene in children's lives.

Eventually, the pleas of children's rights advocates were heard and the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899 created the first court system for children in America. Under the unique rules of this new court, children would not be tried like adults through a formal, open and adversarial process. The new court's goal would not be to punish children for their crimes but to serve as a "kind and just parent" to them, using closed and informal hearings to act in their best interests.

Formation of the Juvenile Justice System

Since the day Cain -- the symbolic first child -- committed murder, people have embraced the abstract concept of juvenile justice. The metamorphosis of this abstract notion into reality, however, is a recent event that parallels the creation of juvenile courts.

Juvenile justice, like juvenile courts, evolved out of the late 19th century realization that delinquent children should not be treated the same as adult offenders. Most juvenile justice agencies and departments evolved from both private and public reformatories, as well as almshouses or poorhouses, juvenile training schools, children's centers and boys' forestry camps that were under the purview of other state agencies such as public welfare.

In South Carolina, the evolution can be traced to 1868, when the state's new constitution called for a reform school. In 1875, the state Legislature set aside a wing of the state penitentiary to create a reformatory for delinquent boys. Many years of political wrangling passed before the Lexington Reformatory finally opened in 1901.

At about the same time, juvenile justice philosophy began to evolve from one of punishment to one of redemption and education, not only in South Carolina, but throughout the nation. In fact, modern child psychiatry grew out of requests by juvenile court judges for professional assistance in understanding the children who appeared in their courts. …

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