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10.3: History of the Juvenile Justice System

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    parens patriae originated in the 12th century with the King of England and literally means “the father of the country.” Applied to juvenile matters, parens patriae means the king is responsible for and in charge of everything involving youth. [1] Parens patriae was often used by royalty in England from their homes in the name of the king. Children were often seen as property and were thus subject to the wishes of the king or his agents. [2] This was especially relevant when they violated the law.


    parens patriae had a substantial influence on events in the United States, such as the child-saving movement, houses of refuge, and reform schools. The persistent doctrine of parens patraie can be seen evolving from “king as a father” to a more general ideology, that of the state “acting in the best interest of the child.” Subsequent matters involving youth revolve around this notion of acting in the best interest of the child, whether children were taken away from wayward parents, sent to reform schools for vagrancy, or even held in institutions until they read the age of majority, or 18 years old. The idea is that the state is acting in their best interest, protecting the youth from growing up to be ill-prepared members of society. Thus, the courts are intervening for the youth’s own good.

    house of refuge in New York City in 1825. These were urban establishment used to corral youth who were roaming the street unsupervised or who had been referred by the courts. [4]

    parens patriea, many of the parents of these youth were not involved in the placement of their children in these houses. The case of Ex Parte Crouse is an example. [5]

    Reform Schools: The 1850s ushered in the development of reform schools or institutions used for the housing of delinquent and dependent children. The schools were structured around a school schedule rather than the work hours that defined the workhouses and houses of refuge. Many reform schools operated like a cottage system where the youth were divided into “families” with cottage parents who oversaw the day to day running of the family, discipline of the youth, and schooling. The structure is still used in some youth correction institutions today, however, back in the nineteenth century, children were often exploited for labor and many of the school de-emphasis formal education. [6] Additionally, the emphasis of the reform school was on the strength of the family and they believed that by reinserting a strong family presence in the lives of the youth, they would be deterred from further criminal pursuits. [7] Regardless of the lack of evaluations as to the effectiveness of these institutions, the popularity of reformatories continued to grow.

    parens patriae. However, in 1870, a boy named Daniel Turner was considered a “misfortunate”, or someone who was in danger of becoming delinquent because his family was poor and unable to care for him. He was remanded to a Chicago house of refuge for vagrancy, not a delinquent act. His father filed a writ of habeas corpus and the court ruled that the state has no power to imprison a child, who has committed no crime, on the mere allegation that he is “ destitute of proper parental care, and is growing up in mendicancy, ignorance, idleness, and vice.” [8] People Ex Rel. O’connell v. Turner, 55 Ill. 280 (Ill. 1870). This effectively closed the reform schools in Illinois since they could no longer house non-criminal children. This case challenged the practice of parens patriae and ruled that the state can only take control of children if the parents are completely and utterly unfit and/or the child had committed some act of “gross misconduct.” [9]

    Child Saving Movement: By the end of the ninetieth century, cities were experiencing the effects of three major things: industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Industrialization refers to the shift in work from agricultural jobs to more manufacturing work. This led to a greater number of people moving from the country to the cities, and the cities increasing exponentially in population without the infrastructure to support the increase. Immigration refers to the internal migration of people in America and the external movement of people from other countries. Within America, people were moving from the southern states (remember, this is not long after the end of the Civil War, which ended in 1865) and immigrating from European countries such as Ireland (the potato famine lasted from 1845-1854 and killed an estimated 1.5 million people). Millions of Germans and Asians also immigrated to America during this time lured by Midwest farmlands and the California Goldrush. [10]

    [11] Nonetheless, the child-saving movement emerged during this time in an effort to change the way the state was dealing with dependent, neglected, and delinquent children. The child savers were women from middle and upper-class backgrounds.


    Creation of the Juvenile Court

    , Commonwealth v. Fisher Commonwealth v. Fisher, 213 Pennsylvania 48 (1905) , conveyed the legal authority of the new juvenile court under parens patriae:

    "To save a child from becoming a criminal, or from continuing in a career of crime, . . . the legislatures surely may provide for the salvation of such a child, if its parents or guardians be unable or unwilling to do so, by bringing it into one of the courts of the state without any process at all, for the purpose of subjecting it to the state's guardianship and protection."

    1. Merlo, A., & Benekos, P. (2019). The Juvenile Justice System, Delinquency, Processing, and the Law (9th ed.) Pearson.
    2. Shoemaker, D. (2018). Juvenile Delinquency (3rd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield.
    3. Merlo, A., & Benekos, P. (2019). The Juvenile Justice System, Delinquency, Processing, and the Law (9th ed.). Pearson.
    4. Merlo, A., & Benekos, P. 2019. The Juvenile Justice System, Delinquency, Processing, and the Law (9th ed.). Pearson.
    5. Ex Parte Crouse (1839)
    6. Mennel, R.M. (1973). Thorns & Thistles: Juvenile Delinquents in the United States from 1825–1940. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England.
    7. Shoemaker, D. (2018). Juvenile Delinquency (3rd ed.). Rowman & Littlefield.
    8. People Ex Rel. O’connell v. Turner, 55 Ill. 280 (Ill. 1870).
    9. Fox, S.J. (1970). Juvenile Justice Reform: An Historical Perspective. Stanford Law Review, 22:1187–1239
    10. History (n.d.). US immigration before 1965.
    11. Feld, B.C. (1999). Bad Kids: Race and the Transformation of the Juvenile Court. New York: Oxford University Press.
    12. Platt, A. (1977). The Child Savers: The Invention of Delinquency (2nd ed., pp.83). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    This page titled 10.3: History of the Juvenile Justice System is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Alison S. Burke, David Carter, Brian Fedorek, Tiffany Morey, Lore Rutz-Burri, & Shanell Sanchez (OpenOregon) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.