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Published: July 7, 2011

Juvenile court

An institution for judging youths accused of crimes and misdemeanors. Juvenile courts have had harsh consequences for American public school education by returning to their home communities hundreds of thousands of troubled youths who had previously been incarcerated in special residential institutions. Until 1899, juvenile offenders were tried in adult courts, which sentenced the guilty to specific terms in special prisons for the young called REFORMATORIES, or reform schools, which were charged with both educating and rehabilitating their charges. Although no more effective than prisons for adults, they represented an advance over the practice, common until the 1820s, of incarcerating young and old prisoners together. Nevertheless, the hundreds of thousands of homeless children, roaming American city streets and committing crimes to survive, provided harsh evidence that reform schools were neither rehabilitating nor educating their charges.
By the end of the century, G. STANLEY HALL’s child-study movement had given Americans a new perception of children as “innocents.” At the same time, the homeless children on American streets gave rise to a small army of adult “child savers” who worked with children either directly, by educating, clothing and feeding them in settlement houses, or indirectly, by working for legal reforms. One of these was JULIA LATHROP, who developed the concept of a juvenile court whose decisions would be based on the theory that, wherever possible, children are better off left in their own homes, regardless of conditions there. Lathrop was responsible for encouraging legislation that created the nation’s first juvenile court, in Chicago in 1899. Denver opened a second the same year. Instead of formal courtrooms, juvenile court was held in a special, informal atmosphere by a special judge trained in child psychology. Judges worked closely with special probation officers trained in social work and who represented the interests of each child, conducting investigations of the child’s circumstances and making recommendations for the disposition of each case. For children found guilty and returned to their homes, the probation officers collaborated with the child’s family and school authorities in overseeing the child’s formal schooling.
The programs never produced the anticipated reductions in juvenile crime, but they did produce widespread educational “reforms” by forcing public schools to absorb and adapt to the presence of disruptive, troubled youngsters.