Today, if you’re under 18 and charged with a crime, your case will likely be decided, and punishment meted out, through a legal system designed for minors. But until the beginning of the 20th century, kids under the age of 18 were tried — and jailed or imprisoned — alongside adults. That is, until the world’s first juvenile court was established right here in Chicago in 1899.
Andrea Krieg, a criminal justice professor at Elmhurst College, has read about the court’s formation in various textbooks and course materials throughout her career.
“There is [always] one sentence that says ‘the first juvenile court was created in Cook County, Illinois,’ and then it just keeps moving on,” she says.
It has left her wanting to know more. So she asked Curious City:
Chicago had the first juvenile court in the whole United States. What is the history of it?
The framework for the nation’s first juvenile court was created in the late 19th century by a group of Progressive Era women in Chicago. They were impassioned social activists, and many were among the first generation of American women to attend college. At the time, increased immigration, rapid industrialization, and urbanization presented new challenges and inequities. From their base at Jane Addams’ Hull House they envisioned, advocated for and created bold new solutions, including a separate justice system that would be designed specifically to meet the unique needs of kids and families.
But as it evolved over the 20th century, America’s juvenile justice system started to move away from its original conception, and ended up looking more and more like the adult criminal system it had hoped to replace.
Today, those shifts have presented a wide range of challenges. But they’ve also inspired a new era of reckoning and reflection.
The origins of juvenile justice reform
In late 19th century Chicago, hundreds of kids — many of them from immigrant or other low-income families — were flowing in and out of the criminal justice system every year. In 1882, by one count, there were more than 250 children age 14 and under being held in the Cook County jail, at least 20 of them under the age of 11.
“They’re being arrested, handcuffed, spending nights in jails and police stations with older, hardened criminals,” says University of Nevada Professor David Tanenhaus, author of Juvenile Justice in the Making, which details the formation and evolution of the first juvenile court.
Children were often arrested and jailed for committing minor infractions, Tanenhaus says. For example, he wrote that in one case a 10-year-old boy who stole a pair of shoes spent almost two weeks in the adult county jail waiting to appear before a grand jury. It’s situations like these, Tanenhaus says, that galvanized social reformers.
“There’s a moral awakening in the late 19th century as people are realizing that children are ending up being treated the same way adults are, for committing even minor infractions,” Tanenhaus says.
These were some of the concerns that galvanized a group of female reformers who congregated at Jane Addams’ Hull House, the famous settlement house located on what is now the campus of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
From its founding in 1889, the women of Hull House were particularly concerned with the plight of children. They advocated for child labor restrictions and compulsory schooling, provided kindergarten and daycare, and built the city’s first public playground next to the Hull House headquarters. Pushing for juvenile justice reform was a natural extension of their mission.
While a wide variety of women from all backgrounds got involved, two reformers in particular are credited with spearheading the creation of the juvenile court: Julia Lathrop and Lucy Flower.
Lathrop was a Hull House social worker who toured every jail in Illinois in the early 1890s, documenting the conditions there. She brought deep expertise on the criminal justice system.
Flower, meanwhile, was a wealthy philanthropist. She served on the Chicago School Board and helped create what became the Cook County School of Nursing. Flower had deep connections across the city’s ruling class, which she worked to gain support for the court.
Flower conceived of a so-called “parental court,” which would divert children away from the adult system and give them a better shot at maturing into upstanding citizens.
The two women drew upon their vast networks to build a coalition in support of their effort. It included various religious leaders and the Chicago Bar Association, which not only lent the reform movement a layer of professional credibility, but also helped get draft legislation for the court in front of judges and other influential figures.
In the spring of 1899, the Illinois legislature passed a bill based on Flower’s model, creating the world’s first juvenile justice system.
“Chicago becomes a model through creating this remarkable legislation, [and through] the talent of the people involved,” Tanenhaus says.
How the court worked
The first juvenile cases were heard at the County Building in downtown Chicago, and in 1907 a dedicated juvenile court and detention center was built across the street from Hull House.
Professor Thomas Geraghty, who teaches juvenile law at Northwestern University School of Law, says that unlike the adult system, the procedures of the first juvenile court were purposefully designed to be informal in the hopes that the outcomes would be more restorative than punitive.
“The judge might be sitting around the table instead of a formal courtroom, the children and families would be sitting at a table, as opposed to standing in the dock as a criminal defendant would, and the objective of the judge was to try to act in the best interests of the child,” he says.
The progressive reformers hoped this approach would allow judges and probation officers to provide individualized solutions in each child’s case, and increase their chances of success.
“They did not have attorneys, and actually the idea was that probation officers would stand up and let the judge know what they thought was in the best interest of the child,” Geraghty says. “There wasn’t a right to confront witnesses, there was no right to counsel, there was certainly no right to a jury trial. The way cases were adjudicated was extremely informal, so hearsay was permissible.”
The Chicago court model spread rapidly. By 1925, every state except Maine and Wyoming had some kind of juvenile court system.
Tanenhaus says the proliferation was a stated goal of the progressive reformers.
“They’re writing it as model legislation,” he says. “They’re thinking that the problems in Chicago are really symptomatic in urban areas across the world, that their solution is something that can be replicated.”
The juvenile court strays from its original vision
The early reformers hoped their new approach would help kids stay out of the legal system. But instead, as the court grew over the first three decades of the 20th century, they noticed a pattern: the same kids kept coming back.
Ultimately, the juvenile court “doesn’t solve the problem of children growing up without the support that they need from families and communities. It’s not going to solve those structural problems,” Tanenhaus says.
Then, Geraghty says, another problem arose over the next few decades. The court had been created under the assumption that everyone in the room would be working in the best interest of the child. They hadn’t envisioned a need for counsel. But, as the system grew to accomodate more and more children, it was harder to maintain that culture of support.
“Children were being dealt with in a rather summary fashion, without representation of counsel, without due process,” Geraghty says.
One famous example involved the case of a 15-year-old boy arrested for allegedly making an obscene phone call. His parents were not notified of his arrest, and he was eventually convicted — without a lawyer — and sentenced to a juvenile detention facility.
His case, In re Gault eventually became one of several Supreme Court decisions that Geraghty says contributed to what’s known as the Due Process Revolution, which made the juvenile court system much more structured and formal.
“And from then on, children were entitled to counsel, they were entitled to confront witnesses … they could not be deprived of their liberty without proof beyond reasonable doubt,” Geraghty says. “[The Supreme Court] made it very clear that juveniles were entitled to essentially the same due process rights as adults.”
Though the changes expanded legal protections for juveniles, the court also began to look—and operate — a lot more like the adult system.
Then, starting in the late 1970s, a series of high-profile cases made many fear that kids who committed crimes were getting off too easy.
“There was a perception that many children who were charged with serious offenses … were released without serving much or any significant time incarcerated,” Geraghty says.
The shift reflected what Tanenhaus calls a “moral panic” that dominated the national discourse on crime in the 1980s and ’90s. States began passing “automatic transfer laws” which allowed courts to transfer juveniles charged with certain violent crimes directly to adult courts and prisons. Still, in Cook County’s juvenile detention center, the population continued to increase, leading to rampant overcrowding and abusive conditions. It was exactly what the reformers were trying to avoid.
Ongoing challenges in a new era of reform
In the late ’90s and early 2000s, activists and institutions started reassessing that tough on crime approach, inspiring yet another era of progressive transformation.
At the forefront of pushing for those modern-day reforms is Betsy Clarke, founder of the Juvenile Justice Initiative, a nonprofit based in Evanston. Today, over a century after the first juvenile court was established, Clarke’s concerns echo those of the early reformers. She’d like to move away from trying any juvenile in adult court, and wants to provide more education and professional resources for at-risk communities.
Clarke says there’s been progress made in the juvenile system over the past 20 years. For example, she says, the number of incarcerated minors has dropped drastically. However, she says the court still faces a number of obstacles, including the overrepresentation of children of color and children from low income families.
“We do things in this country that no other developed country does,” Clarke says. “We prosecute children as adults, we give them lengthy sentences in the adult court, we lock up children — even though we’ve reduced it a lot — we lock them up at still much higher rates than other developed nations. So, it’s a funny dichotomy. We were the leader over a century ago and we…just need to change some of these policies to catch up.”
More about our questioner
As a kid, Andrea Krieg says her dad’s work as an attorney left a lasting impression, even if she didn’t realize it at the time.
“He always took the shift on Christmas morning because the courts don’t stop moving,” she says. “We used to wait for him to come home before Santa’s presents could get opened. And so little things like that … influenced my decisions.”
Through her work teaching about and researching the criminal justice system, Andrea says she’s realized the existence of the juvenile court is something a lot of people take for granted.
“I think it’s a system that overall most people don’t interact with,” Andrea says. “It’s a very kind of concentrated population that ends up dealing with…the juvenile justice system. And for that reason alone, I think it’s really important because people aren’t always aware of the effects that is has on such a large population of people.”
Andrea says she’s fascinated to learn about the evolution of the juvenile court, but isn’t surprised that what it was intended to be isn’t quite what we have now.
“It’s important to think that the roots of it had different intentions than right now. Which I think is kind of, the criminal justice system at its foundation. That we always have different intentions and then there’s collateral consequences.”
Quinn Myers is a freelance reporter in Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter at @rquinnmyers.