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Juvenile Courts

This inveterate demand of youth that life shall afford a large element of excitement is in a measure well founded. We know of course that it is necessary to accept excitement as an inevitable part of recreation, that the first step in recreation is “that excitement which stirs the worn or sleeping centers of a man’s body and mind. It is only when it is followed by nothing else that it defeats its own end, that it uses up strength and does not create it. In the actual experience of these boys the excitement has demoralized them and led them to law-breaking. Jane Addams, The Bad Boy of the Street, October 1909.

With the rise of industrialization and increased urban populations, city planners and civic leaders debated the best way to deal with rising numbers of young offenders. Children who committed crimes had always been tried as adults and imprisoned in the same prisons as adults. Prison reforms of the mid-1800s separated women and children, from the general prison population, in some states building separate prisons for children, such as the New York House of Refuge. Despite separation, the conditions in the juvenile prisons were just as harsh as those for adults. In 1910, the Office of Education measured an average of twenty thousand people held across 115 juvenile correctional facilities, which includes both delinquents and nondelinquents. According to the Bureau of Census, of those in juvenile correctional facilities, the majority of offenses were either larceny, at 25.7%, or Disobedience, Incorrigibility, Running Away, Delinquency, at 32.6%. These crimes are also some of the most frequently mentioned when juvenile court advocates, like Addams, discussed the issues of juvenile delinquents.

Members of the National Conference of Charities and Correction (NCCC) debated the best solution to the injustices faced by imprisoned juveniles in the 1890s. Child delinquency was just one part of its focus; it also worked for reforms of the treatment of the insane, the feeble-minded, immigrants, the poor, and adult prisoners. Jane Addams was one of those members, presenting a paper on “Child Labor and Pauperism” at the 1903 conference. By 1910, she had become the NCCC’s president, the first woman to lead that organization. Julia Lathrop and Lucy Flowers, both Hull House residents, worked to develop a plan for a new way of handling juvenile crime. The Cook County Juvenile Court was the result, opened in 1899 across the street from Hull-House. By 1901, the committee that ran it (later known as the Juvenile Protective Association), hired the first probation officers for juveniles.

As states across the country opened juvenile courts, Illinois served as a model. Juvenile courts dealt with children under the age of sixteen and instead of incarceration, they tried to rehabilitate the youths. They established reform schools and foster programs to provide moral education and remove the child from criminal temptation. Because of the structure of the courts, there was no due process for delinquents. Juvenile courts argued that the state was the parent of all children, and therefore had a duty to protect children. Juvenile courts investigated not only look at the crimes committed by children, but also the moral, emotional, educational, and physical background of the child. Each case received individual attention, so that the rehabilitation process could be tailored to meet their needs. Reformers believed that if the moral character of a child could be corrected when they were still a juvenile, then they could become a well-respected member of society.

Although Addams did not work directly in the courts, she used her fame to get attention for the issue. She offered eloquent arguments for the juvenile court system, and called the current practice of trying children as adults cruel and unfair. She worked closely with juvenile court judges like Ben Lindsey and Julian Mack to spread support for the rehabilitation of juvenile delinquents. Addams’ writings include stories of how kids ended up in the juvenile court system and how they benefited from the new approach. Her 1909 book, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets explored the issues affecting youth. She saw that pent up energy could be better directed to keep children away from the temptations of the streets. Addams advocated for public playground, art programs, and better education as a solution to urban discontent.

By 1925, almost every state in the United States had adopted the juvenile court system.

Recommended primary sources:

Jane Addams, “The Bad Boy of the Street," October 1909, Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Jane Addams, “Probation Work Under Civil Service," March 17, 1906, Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Jane Addams, “Jane Addams: The Juvenile Adult Offender, October 1913,” Jane Addams Digital Edition.

Jane Addams, "Child Labor and Pauperism," May 9, 1903.

Additional Resources:

Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Juvenile Justice History

American Bar Association Division for Public Education, The History of Juvenile Justice.

Hart, Hastings H. National Conference of Charities and Corrections Virginia Commonwealth University, Social Welfare History Project.

Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections, from the Hathi Trust Digital Library

Margaret Werner Calahan. “Historical Corrections Statistics in the United States, 1850-1984.” U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, 1987, pp. 101–141.

Suggested Subjects:

Addams, Jane, views on justice

Addams, Jane, views on youth

Addams, Jane, writings, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets

juvenile courts

juvenile delinquency


urban improvement


Organizations associated with juvenile delinquency.

Photo credits:

Lewis Hine. Newspaper boys smoking, 1910. (Metropolitan Museum of Art).