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Juvenile Status Offenders - Historical Antecedents

children court offenses percent

The establishment of the juvenile court in 1899 reflected a recognition that children and youths were different from adults and should be treated differently by courts and correctional agencies. They were seen as immature, less capable of criminal intent in their lawbreaking, given to numerous violations that were natural to growing up in American society, and in need of disciplined guidance that could avert a criminal career. The expectation was that court-arranged interventions would protect dependent children from becoming delinquents, would prevent incorrigible youths from becoming delinquent, and constrain delinquents from becoming adult criminals.

Precepts directing children's obedience to parents go back to antiquity, to early Roman and Greek cultures, to the Fifth Commandment of the Hebrew Old Testament, and to directives of other Near Eastern civilizations. More recently, little solicitude was shown children in Europe and early America. Children were apprenticed at an early age, which often led to exploitation, beatings, and aborted opportunities to enter mainstream life. Children were loved or ignored, treated with care or harshly, without state or child advocacy organization interventions. A high death rate among children contributed to a certain history of indifference. With exceptions, the modern concept of childhood had not yet been discovered within a broad cross-section of society.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, interest in improving child-rearing practices began taking shape. Church and school officials promoted the dual precepts that children were special and fragile, but also corruptible and trying. The church, the family, the community, and the school were to join in fostering their development and controlling misbehaviors. Principles emerged that stressed discipline, modesty, chastity, hard work, and obedience to authority. Such Puritan values were very influential but not universal in the North American colonies. There was an interest in helping the poor who helped themselves, scorning others who were without motivation and urging a conforming, industrious life.

The Massachusetts "stubborn child" offense, still current into the 1970s, arose in the year 1654 when the House of Deputies of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England determined that children indeed misbehaved and treated authority figures with little or no respect, and the colony provided corporal punishment such as whipping for offenders.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 authorized the incorporation of these and other early laws into the statutes of the Commonwealth. Over time, simplifying amendments were made, but as late as 1971, the state's Supreme Judicial Court upheld the stubborn child statute against a complaint that the statute was so vague and indefinite as to violate constitutional due process requirements (Commonwealth v. Brother, Supreme Court of Massachusetts, 270 N.E. 2d 389 (Mass.), 1971).

The creation of the U.S. Constitution, the nineteenth-century promulgation of Enlightenment philosophy, and the promise of human fulfillment and progress brought a more hopeful and positive attitude toward helping the downtrodden and the deviant, with greater focus on the conditions that contributed to poor adjustment. Nevertheless, children commonly were held, not helped, in impoverished almshouses and sentenced regularly to degrading jails where they lived side by side with adult inmates. Beginning about 1825 in more urban centers, specialized institutions were founded, such as orphan asylums for abandoned children and houses of refuge for runaway, disobedient, or vagrant young people and lesser juvenile criminals. Later, industrial (training) schools for young juvenile law violators and reformatories for youthful criminals were established often in rural areas. But jailing remained common. None of these approaches were found to be panaceas. Prior to 1899, juvenile law violators and status offenders were punishable as adults, though some institutions had been initiated to house juveniles only. The creation of the juvenile court in 1899 was intended to offer new hope for saving children. Juvenile court statutes defined delinquency to include numerous status offenses.

Accurate early data of official handling of status offense misbehaviors are difficult to come by. An examination of archival data of the offenses recorded for juveniles committed to the Wisconsin State Reform School in the pre-juvenile court decades of 1880–1889 and 1890–1899 found 50 percent and 40 percent of inmates, respectively, had been committed for "incorrigibility and vagrancy," the former offense far outnumbering the latter. Further, Milwaukee Juvenile Court records for 1908–1911 reflected significant numbers of incorrigibility, certain truancy and vagrancy, and considerable numbers of disorderly conduct and disorderly person offenses along with high percentages of larceny and burglary.

The first reports of the initial American juvenile court, in Cook county (Chicago), Illinois, found more than 50 percent of delinquency cases were in fact the status offenses of disorderly behavior, "immorality," vagrancy, truancy, and incorrigibility. Juvenile court data for Los Angeles for 1920 reported 220 petitions against girls, 90 percent of them for status or other noncriminal offenses. Interestingly, their working-class parents referred nearly half of the girls. Sixty-three percent of the girls were accused of sexual activity and more than half of these tested positive for venereal infection during their pre- or post-court stay in the detention center.

Juvenile Status Offenders - The Breadth Of Proscribed Behaviors [next]

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