An Illinois History of Juvenile Court

June 16, 2010

Download Story
More than a hundred years ago, the world's first juvenile court began hearing cases—right here in Chicago. For WBEZ, Robert Loerzel recounts that history.

In the late 1890s, Chicago police arrested a 10-year-old boy for stealing a pair of shoes. First, they locked him up in a police station. Then they sent him to the Cook County Jail. The kid was in jail for 12 days, right next to all of the adult criminals. Grand jurors finally heard the boy's case, but they didn't have a lot of options.

TANENHAUS: This seemed crazy. Either you were going to overly punish a child by treating him or her as an adult and send them to jail, where they're going to learn a bunch of terrible things and become criminals in the process. Or, you were going to do nothing.

David Tanenhaus is a professor of history and law at the University of Nevada. Tanenhaus wrote a book on the history of Chicago's juvenile court called Juvenile Justice in the Making. He says Cook County grand jurors didn't know what to do with young criminals.

TANENHAUS: The thinking that develops in Chicago in the 1890s is: Why couldn't we actually develop a children's court, with the children's judge who only heard these cases, and could think about, "What is it these children need? What could we do to make sure that they actually grow up and become law-abiding citizens?"

Chicago reformers Jane Addams, Lucy Flower and Julia Lathrop led the way.

TANENHAUS: As women, they were able to make this special claim: "As women, we're responsible for raising the children in society."

Here's what Lathrop said about the way Chicago's police courts dealt with young people.

LATHROP DRAMATIZED: These ruined children are brought before the justices over and over again. The children regard it as a mere joke. This is probably the greatest evil and the greatest shame in this city.

Their lobbying worked. And in 1899, the Illinois General Assembly created a juvenile court. It was first time any government anywhere in the world had taken this sort of action. Judge Richard Tuthill heard the first cases in the Cook County Juvenile Court in July 1899. Other states soon followed, setting up similar courts. Then the idea spread to other countries.

TANENHAUS: This is the most-copied legal innovation in our nation's legal history. Every industrialized democracy has a juvenile court today.

But in those early years, Illinois and Cook County didn't budget any money for juvenile probation officers or a detention home. The juvenile court had to rely on volunteers and charities.

TANENHAUS: The initial thought is if you just have a judge who understands kids and will listen —and you can do some investigations into their lives—you'll figure out what's wrong and you can correct the problem. What they find out pretty quickly is a court can't solve delinquency.

In 1909, the court hired Dr. William Healy to study the reasons Chicago's children were committing crimes. Healy listed several causes in his report.

HEALY DRAMATIZED: Bad companions. Immoral mother. Poverty. Cheap plays and nickel shows. Bad heredity. Very poor education. Bandit ideas from books. Densely ignorant family. Desire for finery. Mental peculiarities. Alcoholism of parent. Great love of excitement and adventure.

David Tanenhaus says Healey's groundbreaking work shows that juvenile delinquency hasn't changed all that much over the years.

TANENHAUS: Our first assumption usually is that somehow kids in the past must have been more innocent than they are today. In the early years of the 20th century, there are a lot of cases where a kid shoots another kid.

Officials have always struggled with the question of where to house delinquents. Illinois has had reformatories since the 1800s, but Tanenhaus says they were more like prisons than schools.

TANENHAUS There might be brutality on the part of guards. A lot of inmate violence. Maybe not being fed well. They're not being taught anything. There are no classes.

Sociologist Clifford Shaw provides an example of how the juvenile justice system worked in Illinois in the 1920s. He published the true story of a Chicago kid named Stanley. The boy's problems began when he kept running away from home, where his stepmother was beating him. Time after time, Stanley was arrested for running away. He began stealing. Authorities locked him up in one institution after another. He learned about the criminal way of life from fellow inmates. Older inmates sexually abused him. Eventually, Stanley ended up in the Chicago House of Corrections. It was a filthy, smelly city jail. This is how Stanley described his experience.

STANLEY DRAMATIZED: I lost all respect for myself. I felt degenerated and unhuman. I always will feel it was an insult to put me there. It's an insult to put any human soul there. In my anguish, I planned vengeance and hatred. Consequences? I didn't give a damn what happened to me.

Stanley's story had a happy ending. A foster family took him in, and he began working as a salesman. Four years after leaving jail, Stanley looked back on the way Chicago's juvenile-justice system had treated him.

STANLEY DRAMATIZED: Society can force children into correctional institutions, but it cannot force them to reform. In order to reform a boy, you have to change his spirit, not break it.

Decades later, the system has seen many changes, including a complete separation from Adult Corrections. But it still has a ways to go.

Some are hoping a new plan to merge the Illinois Department of Juvenile Justice and the Department of Children and Family Services…will bring it closer to the child-centered rehabilitation model reformers had in mind 100 years ago.

Here's Governor Pat Quinn's chief of staff, Jerry Stermer, from an appearance on Eight Forty-Eight earlier this year.

STERMER: Now, I think we have an opportunity to continue to shift the emphasis to believing in the kids. When you have a model that's about corrections, as we have had in the past, a lot of people in society are feeling like, well, you know, 'Kids did bad, we'll lock them up and we won't have to worry about them.' However, in our society we have happily, since the time of Jane Addams, understood that juvenile is a different thing.

Music Button: Joel Styzens, "It Was", from the CD Relax Your Ears, (A-Sharp)