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Home > Catholic Encyclopedia > J > Juvenile Courts

Juvenile Courts

Tribunals for the trial of children charged with crimes or offences. The maximum age is usually fixed at seventeen years, below which age these courts are generally given exclusive jurisdiction where the crimes are not capital. In some cities, power is also conferred upon these courts to commit to institutions, or other custodial care, juvenile dependents and children found to be in unfit homes. Notably in Washington and Denver, jurisdiction is added to try adults charged with contributing in any way to the delinquency or wrongdoing of a child, and husbands or fathers who fail to support or who desert their wives and children in destitute or necessitous circumstances. Sometimes, as at Washington, laws regulating child labour are enforced through these courts.

By the common law, a child under the age of seven years was conclusively presumed to be incapable of committing a crime. Between seven and fourteen years of age, criminal intent, without which there can be no crime, must be shown by the prosecution. Malice would supply age, was the maxim. At fourteen, the age of puberty, when the child had all the powers it would ever possess, the law cast upon it full responsibility for its criminal acts. It was sentenced, upon conviction, to the jail or the penitentiary, where enforced association with adult criminals brought about most deplorable results. Society has been slow to awaken to the mistake, nay more, the criminal folly, of this policy, and now, under the operation of juvenile-court laws all this is being changed. The juvenile court means more than a new forum. It means a new method in dealing with children who commit offences. It is the manifestation of a new and more rational spirit on the part of the State towards children who violate its public law. The State by its punishment of the adult for crime committed, endeavours, on the one hand, to reform the criminal and, on the other, to deter by the severity of its punishment others from transgressing the law. Now it is recognized that the character of children is yet unformed, that, instead of reformation, they stand in need of formation of good habits and character, and so the aim of the juvenile court becomes correction rather than punishment.

In some States, the juvenile-court movement has commenced by holding the trial of children a separate session of the ordinary criminal court of first instance. In other States, juvenile courts are established, but judges of other tribunals act successively, in turn, as judges of the juvenile court. Elsewhere, as in Colorado, Maryland, Indiana, and the District of Columbia, there are judges appointed as judges of the juvenile court only, and this is claimed to be the best method by those who have given the movement close study. The judge of the juvenile court soon becomes a specialist in his work, but the demands of the important problem of the child, which is his, require in himself the combined qualities of the jurist, the teacher, the sociologist, and the philanthropist. The juvenile courts of the United States may be grouped under two classes: juvenile courts where the procedure is according to that of the English Court of Chancery, and juvenile courts where the procedure approximates that of the ordinary criminal court. The Juvenile Court of Chicago is presided over by one of the judges of the Circuit Court. The proceedings conform as nearly as may be to the practice in Chancery. The pleadings used are simply a petition and an answer, and the process used is a summons. Such proceedings by the State of Illinois, in dealing with the child who has broken one of its laws consists of a declaration that the child needs the parental care of the State, which has always been exercised over dependents through the medium of the Court of Chancery, and that it thus requires the parental care of the State, which is parens patrie, by reason of the failure of the father and mother, first as they are, in the order both of nature and of time, to fulfil their obligations towards this child. Accordingly the State does not brand the child as a criminal, but deals with him as a delinquent child requiring the parental correction of the State, not its punishment. Chicago had the earliest juvenile court, and this is the furthest advance in the movement. In fact, it smacks strongly of paternalism on the part of the State; but we should remember that it is paternalism exercised where it is sadly lacking. Practically, the power is invoked not to interfere with the normal family, but to succour the poor little waifs of fortune out of unfit homes, starved and weather-beaten, the companions, oftentimes, of thieves and worse.

To the other class belongs the Juvenile Court of New York City, presided over in rotation by the judges of the court of Special Sessions, which is a criminal court for the trial of misdemeanours without a jury. But even here the court has power and authority to extend relief to children who have unfit homes or are otherwise abused by their parents---under our system of jurisprudence, an incident of chancery jurisdiction. New York City is the principal gateway of our country, and the problems of this court are made heavy by the presence in its jurisdiction of many who are strangers both to our language and our customs, and by the acute conditions accompanying an enormous population in which are the extremes of wealth and want. The juvenile court at Washington has a criminal procedure. This court was created by the Act of Congress of 19 March, 1906, and is given original and exclusive jurisdiction of all crimes and offences of persons under seventeen years of age, not capital or otherwise infamous and not punishable by imprisonment in the penitentiary. The court is also given jurisdiction over those adults responsible for the delinquency of any child, and over parents or guardians who fail or refuse to provide food, clothing, or shelter for their children, the criminal court of the district having concurrent powers in the latter class of cases. Nor can a dependent child be admitted to any institution supported wholly or in part out of public funds, until the fact of dependence is first ascertained and proved in the juvenile court. In this court are tried all cases arising under the child labour law. Provision is made by the Act for a jury and for appeals in matters of law to the court of appeals of the District of Columbia. The juvenile court is empowered to defer sentence, at its discretion, in the case of any juvenile offender under seventeen years of age, and to place such child on probation, during which it shall be under the jurisdiction of the court.

The probation officers are generally employed by the court to make a preliminary investigation before the child is arraigned. This investigation usually results in helpful data about the parentage and antecedents of the child, its habits and its environment. It is comparatively easy to affix a statutory punishment in the case of the adult found guilty of crime. It is a far more difficult matter to correct a wayward child; so that the previous history of the child is most helpful to the judge. Then, too, the services of the physician are often brought into requisition, to cure some physical ill, such as adenoidal growths, which may in a measure account for the delinquency of the child. In both classes of juvenile courts---those whose procedure is after the manner of chancery or equity courts, and those whose procedure is more like that of the ordinary criminal courts---the treatment of the child and the attitude of the judge towards the child are the same. In the treatment, the underlying purpose is the saving of the child, not its punishment, nor even its restraint. And the personality of the judge is an element of vast importance in any juvenile court. "I have always felt and endeavoured to act in each case", said Judge Tuthill, of Chicago, "as I would were it my own son who was before me in my library at home charged with misconduct". The Supreme Court of Utah, in the case of Mill v. Brown, 88 Pacific Reporter, page 609 (1907) said: "To administer juvenile laws in accordance with their true spirit and intent requires a man of broad mind, of almost infinite patience, and one who is the possessor of great faith in humanity and thoroughly imbued with that spirit. The judge of any court, and especially a judge of a juvenile court, should be willing at all times, not only to respect, but to maintain and preserve, the legal and natural rights of men and children alike."

The juvenile court must not commit to the jail or the workhouse or the penitentiary the children who must be confined. It may send them to so-called reform schools, institutions that sprang into existence some seventy-five years ago, or to some other place provided for their kindly but custodial care. In the case of Mill v. Brown, supra, we read: "Before the State can be substituted to the right of the parent, it must affirmatively be made to appear that the parent has forfeited his natural and legal right to the custody and control of the child by reason of his failure, inability, neglect, or incompetency to discharge the duty and thus to enjoy the right. Unless, therefore, both the delinquency of the child and the incompetency, for any reason, of the parent concur, and are so found, the court exceeds its power when committing a child to any of the institutions contemplated by the act." Instead of so committing the child, the court may either impose a fine or, what is done in a large percentage of the cases, place the child upon probation. Probation is a new system of custodial care that is rapidly growing in favour as the best method to handle or discipline, not only children who violate the law, but adults as well. Probation means that, with confidence in the promises of the offender to offend no more, the court suspends sentence and enlarges him under the care of the probation officers attached to the court, with a view to releasing him in the future, when his conduct and progress justifies it, from the jurisdiction of the court. The management of penal institutions release prisoners from time to time in a similar manner, but in such cases the release is more accurately and more properly termed parole. The nomenclature employed in the method is, however, far from settled.

On probation, the child remains in its home, in its natural environment, where the expenses, too, of its nurture and education should properly be borne. This has resulted in a substantial saving, even from a pecuniary point of view, to the communities where it has been tired, often amounting to as much as sixty thousand dollars per annum, it is estimated, in cities of two hundred and fifty thousand inhabitants. It has been demonstrated that "it is wiser and less expensive to save children than to punish criminals." To do this, probation imposes certain positive duties upon both probation officer and judge, especially where the function of the judge is confined to the juvenile court. In such a case the best results are obtained when the judge becomes in practice his own chief probation officer, carefully supervising the system himself. The judge and the probation officers must labour to develop good character in the child. The aim of probation is character-building. Hereby is brought about the saving of the child, the "citizen of tomorrow", to himself and to his country. Probation is of such importance that it has been termed the keystone of the juvenile court system. By the patient, painstaking efforts of the probation officers, much ignorance is dispelled, and all the helpful agencies in a community are drawn upon to serve the legitimate needs of the child, mentally, morally, and physically. An account of the juvenile court would be incomplete without at least a passing reference to Judge Ben B. Lindsey, of Denver, Colorado, who, through his numerous magazine articles and public addresses throughout the United States upon the juvenile court, is so intimately associated with the institution in the public mind. His excellent services to the children of Denver, his many speeches, addresses, and published articles, have been potent in the speedy spread of the movement for juvenile courts.

As above mentioned, to Chicago belongs the honour of having established the first juvenile court, on 1 July, 1899. The pressing need was generally felt, the country was ripe for the movement, and there quickly followed the inauguration of juvenile courts in Denver, Indianapolis, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, until some thirty cities have them, and almost all cities are considering their adoption. This American movement has appealed to Europe, where it has been adopted in Germany, France, Belgium, Sweden, Hungary, Italy, and England. Canada and Australia now have juvenile courts, also South Africa and India. The English law follows closely the legislation to protect child life that has been enacted throughout the United States. By it, safeguards are thrown around the religious belief of the child, by having the court select, if possible, a person of the same religious persuasion or some person who will give an undertaking that the child or young person shall be brought up in accordance with its own religious persuasion. This act is to be cited as the Children's Act, 1908. It is technically 8 Edward VII, Chapter 67, and is popularly known as "The Children's Charter". Thus it is recognized as entering into the fabric of the British Constitution. By it child is defined to mean a person under the age of fourteen years, while the expression young person means one between fourteen and sixteen years of age. With the necessary modifications, the act is applied to Scotland and to Ireland. When the court is satisfied of the guilt of the child, it may, in its discretion, deal with the case by dismissing the charge; by placing the offender under the care of a probation officer; by committing the offender to the care of a relative or of some institution; by ordering the offender to be whipped; by ordering the offender to pay a fine, damages, and costs; by ordering the parent or guardian of the offender to make payment of a fine, damages, or costs; and, where the offender is over fourteen years of age, by sending him to prison.

Thus has grown and spread the most remarkable development in jurisprudence of the past decade, a development that is carried on the wings of mercy, kindness, and love, in whose scales of justice are balanced the inexperience of the child and its environment with the responsibility of the parent and the adult, now, for the first time, recognized and enforced by the law of the land. The juvenile court has its origin in the needs of the time. These needs are largely the result of the industrial revolution consequent upon the use of steam and the establishment of the factory system. The old order is changed. Practically, there are no industries in the home. The congregation of workers in factories has promoted the growth of communities and cities. The trend is from the country, with its peace and simple life, to the cities, with their turmoil and dissipations. The conditions in the cities growing out of congestion of population, the use as habitations of flats and tenement houses, have all weakened family life and forced the nervous and mental development of the children into precocity. There is some truth in the saying that there are no children nowadays, and this is a prolific source of the need for juvenile courts. But, as demanded by conditions, the work of these courts is remedial rather than vindictive and punitory. They aim to conserve child-life. All this is in harmony with the spirit of the Catholic Church, whose Divine Founder said: "Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not." In the spirit of the Master, she early set her face against the exposure and destruction of infants under paganism. Creches and infant asylums have in all Christian ages been offered as an alternative to child- murder. Devoted sisterhoods and brotherhoods have always maintained orphan asylums, refuges, and hospitals for the protection, safeguarding and training of the orphaned, abandoned and abused little brothers of Christ. The spirit that created the juvenile court is closely akin to the spirit of the Catholic Church, which, in its canonical punishments, has never been moved by a vindictive spirit. Recognizing in the meanest and the weakest, a soul purchased by the Blood of Christ, her sanctions are chiefly correctional and medicinal. This is also the motive of the juvenile court, the essence of which is correction, conservation, remedy; not retaliation or vindictive punishment.

Sources

Since 1900 numerous articles upon juvenile courts and probation have appeared in periodicals published in the United States and abroad. In the same period, in the published Yearly Proceedings of the National Conference of Charities and Correction, appear addresses upon the subject of Judge Ben B. Lindsey, of Denver; Judge Julian W. Mack, of Chicago; Judge George W. Stubbs, of Indianapolis; Professor Charles R. Henderson, of Chicago; the present writer, and others. See MACK in the Reports of the American Bar Association for 1909; BARROWS, Children's Courts in the United States (reports prepared for the International Prison Commission) (Washington, 1904); LINDSEY, The Problem of the Children and How the State of Colorado Cares for Them (1904); FOLKS, The Care of Destitute, Neglected, and Dependent Children (New York, 1902); Les Tribun aux Speciaux pour Enfants (Paris, 1906); Children's Act (London, 1908); Proceedings of the 75th Anniversary of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (New York, 1909); HURLEY, Origins of the Illinois Juvenile Court Law (3rd ed., Chicago, 1907).

About this page

APA citation. De Lacy, W. (1910). Juvenile Courts. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08586c.htm

MLA citation. De Lacy, William. "Juvenile Courts." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. <http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08586c.htm>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Thomas M. Barrett. Dedicated to Joan LeBarron.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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