The First U.S. Juvenile Court

The First U.S. Juvenile Court

In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Cook County, Illinois after years of activism and efforts by a group of Chicago politicians, lawyers, and activists.

Before the juvenile court was established, children were subject to the same treatment as adults. They were handcuffed and taken to the police station where they would spend a long, traumatic night. The next day they appeared in front of a police magistrate, and almost a third of the cases were dropped because of improper arrest. Those who were charged with minor or serious crimes and were unable to pay their fines or bonds stayed in jail for anywhere between a few days to a few months.

In 1872, 3.5 percent of the more than 7,500 people incarcerated in the House of Corrections were 14 or younger. Including those 17 years and under, the percentage jumps to 8.8 percent. Many of these children had been arrested for being homeless or just wandering the streets.

The first juvenile court legislation went into effect on the morning of July 3, 1899 on the third floor of the County Building in downtown Chicago. This legislation articulated new rules to be followed by the county court when considering children’s cases; the primary aim was to provide rehabilitation and protective supervision for youths. Unlike juvenile court cases today, this was a public event and the courtroom was packed with spectators and reporters. The Campbell case was brought by Frank and Lena Campbell against their son, Henry, who they feared would be sent to an institution due to his constant misbehaving. The parents informed the judge that Henry had a grandmother in Rome, NY and suggested sending him there for a fresh start. The judge agreed that it would be in Henry’s best interest to be sent out east; before the law, the judge’s only options were to send the boy to the State Reformatory for Juvenile Offenders or the John Worthy School, a prison for petty offenders. The judge was not obligated to treat Henry as a criminal, and instead was able to focus on what would be the best rehabilitation plan for the boy.

In 1906 following the example set forth in Illinois, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted its first comprehensive set of laws detailing the legal procedure for delinquents. The statute decriminalized delinquency cases and mandated that if a child must be institutionalized because of his delinquency, then that child must be committed to a facility exclusively maintained for delinquent children. while the original legislation has been frequently changed over the years, Massachusetts has maintained a fundamental commitment to the same purpose of protecting the rights of children.

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