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History of Juvenile Delinquency

Updated on May 26, 2010

In the history of the administration of criminal justice, among the early attempts to give differential treatment to persons of tender years, mention may be made of the 10th century monarch. King Athelstan of England, who enacted a law that "man shall not slay none younger than a fifteen winters' man." On the whole, however, a juvenile who had committed an offense was dealt with as an ordinary criminal, and it is not surprising that in the 18th and 19th centuries, when the prevailing criminological theories favored the imprisonment of offenders, juveniles as well as adults were imprisoned.

Among historical precedents which led to the birth of the concept of juvenile delinquency, two deserve brief mention. Of significance in the first place are the early attempts made to separate juveniles as a different category from adults in connection with imprisonment. Thus, as early as 1704, Pope Clement XI founded in Rome a center for the correction of "profligate youth" so that they might be taught to become useful citizens. In 1756, the Marine Society of England established a special institution for the reformation of juvenile offenders, and other institutions, some of which were known as "ragged schools," soon followed. By 1825 New York City had established a "house of refuge" for juveniles which was the predecessor of the American reformatory school.

The full force of this movement, however, was not felt until 1854 when the Reformatory Schools Act was passed in England, this legislative recognition giving the necessary impetus for the spread of the idea of separate institutional treatment for juveniles. By the end of the 19th century, a substantial number of reformatory schools had been established in a number of countries; under British administration, for example, Burma, India, and what is now Pakistan had a Reformatory Schools Act in 1870 and established special juvenile institutions. The development of this movement was coincident with the humanitarian outlook of the Western world at that time, and it emphasized that juveniles should be reformed instead of punished.

Concurrent with this development, attention was drawn to the need for separate procedures in the adjudication of juvenile cases by the courts. It had been a long-standing practice in Anglo-Saxon law to accept the proposition that children under a certain age, usually seven years, were incapable of distinguishing whether their actions were right or wrong. Associated with this concept was the rebuttable presumption that persons between the ages of 7 and 14 years could discern the import of their actions. The courts decided this issue, and it was understandably difficult for them to define with precision what constituted discernment. With the growing acceptance of the idea of reforming juvenile offenders, there was a stage when the courts resorted to reformatory treatment for those juveniles who appeared to be capable of reform because they did not seem to be unduly vicious, on the presumption that they had acted without discernment. Those appearing to be depraved and incapable of reform, on the other hand, were sentenced to ordinary prisons on grounds that they had acted with discernment. Thus, the offense committed by a juvenile was beginning to play a less important role than the judgment of whether he was suitable for reformative treatment. As a result of this, the need for specialized court procedures came to be increasingly felt.

Early efforts to establish separate adjudication procedures in juvenile cases were known, among others, in a Swiss ordinance of 1862, and in Boston, Mass., where charges against children were heard separately in 1869. The State of South Australia also experimented with such procedures before the end of the 19th century. It was not until July 1, 1899, however, that the first juvenile court in the world was established as a result of a juvenile court law prepared by a committee of the Chicago Bar Association. The formulators of this law advocated that the state should provide adequate measures for the care and treatment of juvenile delinquents instead of regarding them as common criminals. The importance of this approach was that the principles which were associated with chancery practice (particularly par ens patriae, the idea of state responsibility for looking after socially handicapped children) came into what had previously been the realm of purely criminal procedure. The juvenile court movement has spread throughout the world since that time.


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