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Juvenile Justice: Institutions

Current Developments And Problems, Effect Of Crowding On Conditions Of Confinement, Performance-based Standards

The Maine Youth Center, which opened in 1854 and is one of the oldest reform schools in the United States, is home for over two hundred adolescent boys and girls from Maine who have broken the law. The campus sits high on an open hill overlooking the Fore River and looks out on the South Portland Airport. The original building, which formerly housed all of Maine's delinquent youths, is now the facility's administration building and several oversized brick "cottages," two school buildings, and a gymnasium are contained by a tall inward curving chain link fence topped with coils of wire. On one corner of the youth center campus, the brick walls of a new building rise 34 feet high, 420 feet long and 17 inches thick. After 148 years of continuous operation, the dilapidated buildings scattered across the campus will be abandoned. In the fall of 2001, when the $32 million Southern Maine Juvenile Facility replaces the Maine Youth Center, 166 young offenders will occupy a state-of-theart facility equipped with classrooms, closed-circuit TV for monitoring juveniles, a medical health center, individual bedrooms and dining facilities—all under one roof. A few hundred miles north in the town of Charleston, a smaller 144-bed sister institution called the Northern Maine Juvenile Facility is being constructed at a cost of $27 million dollars.

For more than a century, the juvenile justice institution has been the program of choice for juvenile offenders. Many of the institutions that were constructed during the latter half of the nineteenth century remain open today, each housing between two hundred and four hundred youths. After more than 150 years of operation, there is no research that points to the effectiveness of the institution in rehabilitating delinquent youths (Guarino-Ghezzi; and Loughran). Conversely, the harmful impact of correctional institutions on adolescents has been well documented over time. Although euphemistically referred to as "reform schools" or "training schools," large custodial institutions have been known to foster all kinds of abuses including inadequate education and counseling programs, predatory behavior by staff, and resident-on-resident assaults. Most states have not explored alternatives to large-scale institutions for less serious person and property offenders. The long tradition of institutions in America as well as the cost of constructing and maintaining an institution makes it difficult for juvenile justice policy-makers to experiment with diversity in placement options.

The juvenile justice system, a distinctly American invention, got its start in 1825 when a separate institution for wayward children called the House of Refuge was established in New York City. Before the existence of the House of Refuge, young offenders were routinely remanded to the penitentiary where they were exposed to the corrupting influence of adult inmates. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, judges and juries had become reluctant to send minor offenders to prison, which resulted in the release of many young offenders and their return to the streets of the city (Feld). A reform group of the time called the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents feared that many of these children, the sons and daughters of paupers who were regarded as the undeserving poor because of their corrupt and vice-ridden lifestyle, would themselves end up as paupers and criminals (Bernard). For the reformers, the creation of the House of Refuge was the answer to this problem, which was worsening with the migration of families from the countryside seeking work in the factories and the increase of immigration from Europe to America's cities. Other Houses of Refuge were opened in Boston and Philadelphia on the East Coast and then spread to the midwest over the next two decades.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the country's first publicly administered training school for delinquent boys was established in Westboro, Massachusetts, in 1847 by Theodore Lyman, a philanthropist and former mayor of Boston. Lyman's cause was to end the mixing of vulnerable delinquent youths with hardened criminals in the jails and prisons of Massachusetts. He donated $22,500 of his own money to purchase the land on which the state would ultimately build the Westboro School for Boys for "the instruction, employment, and reformation of juvenile offenders" ("An Act to Establish the State Reform School," Massachusetts Acts and Resolves, 1847). The construction of The State Industrial School for Girls in Lancaster, Massachusetts, followed a decade later in 1856. Built for delinquent youths, the institutions began to receive minor offenders and so-called status offenders such as runaway youth, truants, and stubborn children. In 1862, Massachusetts passed an education reform bill that allowed the state to incarcerate chronic truants in its reform schools so as not to disrupt other children's schooling (Feld).

Nearly fifty years later in 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois, which completed the creation of a separate system of justice for juveniles. The birth of the juvenile court was based on an emerging view of children that regarded them as "corruptible innocents" who needed protection from the state (Feld). The new juvenile court introduced the concept of rehabilitation, which de-emphasized youths' offenses and focused on their treatment needs. The juvenile court, acting in the best interest of the child, would officially blur the distinction between a youth's delinquent acts and his nondelinquent status offenses. Many of the children charged with status offenses were in fact homeless, parentless, or poor and were placed in institutions for indeterminate periods of time until they reached their majority under the guise of treating their needs.

The history of juvenile correctional institutions reveals a cyclical process that has repeated itself generation after generation. When first opened, these schools enjoyed a period of calm where staff and youths interacted, and youths made progress. This was usually followed by overcrowding of the institution during periodic crackdowns on juvenile crime. Soon after, living conditions at the institution deteriorated with older, predatory youths attacking younger, more vulnerable ones, increased escapes, youths assaulting staff, and intimidated staff turning on youths. Next followed exposure of incidents and problems by the media, which usually triggered an investigation by state and federal authorities. A blue ribbon commission of elected officials and leading citizens would be convened to issue a report with recommendations for change and improvements. Reforms would be implemented ushering in a new period of calm and order at the institution (Guarino-Ghezzi; and Loughran).


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law