By Alexandra Wilding
BALTIMORE – Until 1899, children in trouble with the law appeared in the same courtrooms as adults — and often received similar sentences.
But that year, Illinois authorized the Juvenile Court Act, which established a court in Chicago only for youths under 16.
The juvenile courts of today, including Maryland’s, are direct descendants of the Illinois system.
The new court system was rooted in the belief that children have a greater capacity to be reformed than adults. Advocates of a juvenile court system believed that children needed to be protected and corrected, not necessarily punished.
“The philosophy was that children are still developing and they are able to change, said Susan Leviton, a University of Maryland law professor and founder of Advocates for Children and Youth.
“You don’t want to treat them like you treat adults,” Leviton said, “because … when you’re young, you make stupid mistakes and it shouldn’t destroy the rest of your life.”
Until juvenile courts were established, delinquent children were treated and jailed like adult criminals. From the colonial period through most of the 1800s, children beyond the “age of reason,” usually age 7, were held to adult standards of behavior.
But early juvenile courts were considered experimental. It took 25 years to come up with standards and a real sense of how the courts would function, said Dr. David S. Tanenhaus, a professor of history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who specializes in the origins and development of federal juvenile justice policy.
Juvenile courts arose during the Progressive Era — a period of social reform and activism in the late 1800s and early 1900s that saw modernization in science, technology and education as solutions to societal problems.
“Juvenile court is often described as progressivism at its best,” Tanenhaus said.
Progressives put a particular emphasis on children’s issues, including education and justice. And they believed that they could use social science research to run cities and create a more humane and efficient society.
By 1945, every state would have a juvenile court.
But even before Chicago’s juvenile court, reformers were finding better ways to treat delinquent children.
New York City’s House of Refuge was established in 1825 to try to separate juveniles from adult prisoners and provide correction as opposed to punishment.
Maryland’s legislature passed a law in 1830, “An Act to Establish a House of Refuge for Juvenile Delinquents,” that created an authority for the state to provide delinquent children with homes, education, and training for a job.
The first House of Refuge did not open, however, until 1855. From 1850 to 1882, Maryland built four reform schools for youth. These homes were segregated according to race and gender and were governed by private boards, according to the Department of Juvenile Services.
Throughout the late 1800s, Maryland built more reformatories. Even so, by 1897, according to the Maryland State Archives, about 15 percent of prisoners in the penitentiary were between 12 and 20 years before conviction. And 21 percent of prisoners in the Maryland House of Correction were 10 to 20 years old when first imprisoned.
In 1902, Maryland passed a law that allowed for children under 16 to have their cases heard by a “magistrate for juvenile causes.” The magistrate could commit children to a reformatory instead of jail.
In the 1920s, the reform schools served youths who needed help because they had been abandoned by their parents, had been found begging on the streets or had broken the law.
In the 1960s, Maryland’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene created the Juvenile Services Administration to run all schools, youth detention centers, and after-care programs. The Department of Juvenile Services became a separate agency in 1987.
By the end of the 20th Century, the juvenile system became more punitive, said Odeana Neal, associate professor of law at the University of Baltimore.
In Maryland, the Department of Juvenile Services was renamed the Department of Juvenile Justice in 1995 to reflect a tougher stance on crime, Neal said. (It was changed back to the Department of Juvenile Services in 2003.)
Neal describes a “pendulum swing” of public attitudes about punishment versus rehabilitation for youth offenders that sways depending on the social climate of the period.
“As much as (the juvenile justice system is) intended to be rehabilitative, I don’t know that there hasn’t always been a sense of punishment that has been intertwined with the system,” Neal said.