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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 Spirit of Youth and the City Streets

With the rise of industrialization and urbanization, juveniles within the court system became an problem. Children who committed crimes were tried as adults and served time in adult prisons facing the same dirty, harsh conditions as adults. As a result of this broken system, children who fell afoul of the law were often unable to rehabilitate. When prison reforms began in the 19th century, children benefited from the creation of juvenile institutions like the New York House of Refuge because it separated them from adults, but the conditiona were still harsh. The National Conference of Charities and Correction spent much of the 1890s debating the solution to the injustices faced by imprisoned juveniles. Jane Addams was an early advocate for juvenile courts because she felt that trying children as adults was cruel and unfair. 

In 1899, the first juvenile court of its kind, the Cook County Juvenile Court, was built across the street from Hull-House. The CCJC was based on the ideas of Julia Lathrop and Lucy Flowers, two Hull-House residents. Addams worked closely with juvenile court judges, like Ben Lindsey and Julian Mack to research and reform the system. Addams investigated how youth ended up in the system, as well as how they benefited from it. In 1909, Addams published The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets, in which she explored the issues affecting the youth of the period and how their pent up energy could be better handled. Addams advocated for public playgrounds, the arts, and better education as a solution to urban discontent.

As juvenile courts became more widely adopted, Illinois became a model for other states. Juvenile courts intervened in cases where the juvenile was under the age of sixteen. Rather than sentencing children to prison time, troubled youths were sent to reform schools or foster homes in order to rehabilitate them and provide moral education. The Court held that the state was served as the parent to all children, and thus had a duty to protect children from the abuses of the criminal courts. Juvenile courts would not only look at the crimes committed by children, but the moral, emotional, educational, and physical background of the child as well. Each case was an individual, and rehabilitation efforts were designed to meet their needs.

The belief behind the juvenile court system was 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. To ensure the best chance of this, probation officers were assigned to offenders until they turned twenty five years old. In Chicago, it was the Juvenile Court Committee, founded in 1901. The Commitee recruited volunteer probation officers and conducted research on juvenile conditions. The Juvenile Court Committee became the Juvenile Protective Association in 1904. In 1905, probation officers began receiving salaries from the city of Chicago. Addams was an advocate for the Juvenile Protective Association and made several speeches promoting their purpose.

In 1910, the Office of Education estimated that on average 20,000 children were held in 115 juvenile correctional facilities, which includes both delinquents and nondelinquents. According to the Bureau of Census, their offenses were larceny, disobedience, incorrigibility, running away, and delinquency. These crimes are also some of the most frequently mentioned when juvenile court advocates, like Addams, discussed the issues of juvenile delinquents.

By 1925, almost every state in the United States had adopted the juvenile court system. The juvenile court system underwent further reforms in the mid-twentieth century.

Recommended primary sources:

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

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

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.

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

People associated with the courts.

Organizations associated with juvenile delinquency.

Photo Credit

Lewis Hine. 11:00 A.M. Monday, May 9th, 1910. Newsies at Skeeter's Branch, Jefferson near Franklin, Metropolitan Museum of Art.