The Legacy of Juvenile Corrections

By Krisberg, Barry | Corrections Today, August 1995 | Go to article overview

The Legacy of Juvenile Corrections


Krisberg, Barry, Corrections Today


As the field of juvenile corrections prepares itself for the next century, practitioners need to understand the historical legacy that continues to influence contemporary policy and practice. As historian William Appleman Williams reminds us, "History offers no answers per se, it only offers a way of encouraging people to use their own minds to make their history." Few areas of the justice system are more in need of critical reexamination than juvenile justice.

This past year, the states introduced more than 700 bills to move more troubled youngsters from specialized juvenile facilities to adult prisons. To some, juvenile corrections has come to symbolize soft-headed liberalism. Others see that juvenile facilities are becoming severely crowded, with many juvenile institutions failing to meet even basic professional standards of child protection. At this stage, public officials seem reluctant to spend taxpayers' dollars to reform juvenile corrections - even as they continue to pour billions of dollars into adult prisons. For example, the 1994 crime bill will give states nearly $9 billion for prison construction and several more billion for boot camps, but juvenile corrections was little more than an afterthought in those congressional deliberations.

The Childsavers

Although religious philanthropic organizations established the first specialized juvenile facilities in the United States in 1825, the most significant growth in public juvenile corrections commenced in the second half of the 19th century. For instance, the very first state juvenile reform school, the Lyman School, opened in 1846.

At that time, growing fears about immigration and the potential for class warfare led government officials to centralize the administration of juvenile facilities. In 1876, there were 51 reform schools or houses of refuge nationwide - of these, nearly three-quarters were run by state or local governments. By 1890, almost every state outside the South had a reform school, and many states had separate facilities for males and females, as well as separate facilities allowing for racial segregation. Youths were admitted to these facilities for a broad range of behaviors, including criminal offenses, status offenses and dependency. The length of stay was regulated by facility administrators, who also could exercise broad discretion to transfer disruptive young detainees to adult prisons.

The new reform schools came under attack by advocates who often are referred to as "the childsavers." This group, which included urban clergy, such as Charles Loring Brace, emphasized the need for prevention services in cities. The group founded children's aid societies to distribute food and clothing and to provide temporary shelter and employment for destitute youths. Brace often attended juvenile facilities managers conferences to argue that the longer the period of confinement, the less likely the youth would be reformed. He and his followers implemented an alternative strategy of placing urban youngsters in apprenticeships with farm families in the West and Midwest. The childsavers had great faith in the curative powers of rural family life. Brace declared these families "God's reformatories" for wayward youths.

Reacting to the childsavers' criticism of reform schools, institutional managers began to locate these facilities in rural areas where it was assumed that agricultural labor would aid the reform process. Many institutions initiated a "cottage system" to create the appearance that youths were living with surrogate parents in home-like environments. In fact, the cottages actually functioned as a classification system to separate children by age, race and "criminal sophistication."

The Impact of the Civil War

The Civil War deeply affected the world of juvenile corrections. Many Southern reform schools were destroyed in battles. The participation of juveniles in the Northern draft riots led to a significant increase in incarcerated juveniles. …

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