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Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996

The Early History of the Court
Sanford J. Fox

Summary

The history of the juvenile court precedes its formal beginnings in the Illinois Juvenile Court Act of 1899. This article traces key trends in the early history of the court, beginning with the founding of separate penal institutions for children in the 1820s and ending with the development of critical analyses of court practice in the 1930s.

The Illinois statute distinguished between delinquent and dependent youths. However, early nineteenth-century intervention typically did not make such a distinction: children convicted of crimes and children who were abandoned, abused, or simply very poor were often housed in the same institutions. Both criminal behavior and poverty were viewed as threats to the social order. In the second half of the nineteenth century, efforts were made to treat dependent and delinquent children differently. Private sectarian agencies were founded to remove noncriminal youths from their homes or the almshouses and "place them out," often either with families in other states or in industrial schools.

The reform efforts behind the passage of the Illinois statute were intended to create improvements in the institutions that intervened on behalf of children. Reformers showed little concern for the procedures used in these interventions, and the resulting statutory language provides few procedural guidelines. Nineteenth-century practice had focused on assessing the children who came before the court for their fitness for rehabilitation and deemphasized the adjudication of the offense itself. This practice continued after the development of the juvenile court at the turn of the century.

The model for ideal juvenile court judicial practice—epitomized by Judge Ben Lindsey of the Denver, Colorado, court—called for a rapport between judge and child and the personal involvement of the judge in the child's reformation. This personal treatment, though popular, came at the expense of the child's due process rights. The movement in the early twentieth century to involve mental health professionals in this rehabilitation diminished the court's direct involvement but did nothing to address procedural inadequacies. These were finally resolved in the due process cases of the 1960s and 1970s.