Recently, there has been, seemingly, an upsurge in juvenile offenders being tried and sentenced as adults. In reality, this is nothing new. Throughout U.S. history, juvenile offenders have been regarded as adults, even though at the same time, they were considered unqualified to make wise decisions about employment and finances. In other words, when a juvenile committed a crime, he/she was regarded as an adult. But when it came to handling money or getting a job, the same juvenile was incompetent.
In today’s world, this double-standard continues to exist. Teenagers are allowed to sit behind the wheel of a two-ton steel weapon, but there are child-labor laws preventing them from working certain jobs. Teenagers may serve in the military, risking their lives in defense of their country, yet they cannot drink a beer. In some cases, even though a juvenile offender will be tried as an adult, he/she is housed in a juvenile facility.
In 1825, the first reform school in the U.S. opened its doors – New York City House of Refuge. Other similar facilities followed rapidly, from 1825 to 1865. For example, the Philadelphia House of Refuge opened in 1828; the Boston House of Reformation in 1826; and the city of New Orleans opened a facility in 1847. The first ‘state’ reform school in the U.S. was located in Massachusetts, opening in 1848. Most of these facilities were called “houses of refuge,” a euphemism for prison. Later, other euphemisms were applied, such as “reform schools,” and “training and industrial schools.” No matter what they were called, the system of therapy was pretty much the same: work, education, and harsh discipline, which doesn’t sound too bad. In fact, the conditions were extremely cruel, much worse than those in contemporary maximum security prisons. In most instances, the juveniles were severely beaten for failure to conform to the strict rules, and occasionally deaths occurred.
Then, in 1899, reform took place. Julia Lathrop, Lucy Flower, and Jane Addams believed that children should not be treated or punished as adults. The three women began pushing for the establishment of a juvenile court system. As a result of their efforts, the first juvenile court law emerged in Illinois. The ambition of the juvenile court was to treat children as children, in a humane and caring manner. The thinking behind the ambition was that a large percentage of children could with the right kind of education and discipline, be salvaged.
Over the course of the last 100 years, the treatment of juvenile offenders has fluctuated, depending on society’s tolerance levels, the crime committed, and budget constraints.