1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Children's Courts

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CHILDREN’S COURTS, or Juvenile Courts, a special system of tribunals for dealing with juvenile offenders, first suggested in the United States. The germ of such institutions was planted in Massachusetts in 1869, when a plan was introduced at Boston of hearing charges against children separately, and apart from the ordinary business of the lesser tribunals. No great progress was made in the development of the idea in Massachusetts, as the legal authorities were not fully convinced of the utility or need for a separate court so long as the children were kept strictly apart from adults, and this could be assured by a separate session. But the system of “probation,” by which children were handed over to the kindly care and guardianship of an appointed officer, and thus escaped legal repression, was created about the same time in Boston and produced excellent results. The probation officer is present at the judge’s side when he decides a case, and is given charge of the offender, whom he takes by the hand, either at his parent’s residence or at school, and continually supervises, having power if necessary to bring him again before the judge. The example of Massachusetts in due course influenced other countries, and especially the British colony of South Australia, where a State Children’s Department was created at Adelaide in 1895, and three years later a juvenile court was opened there for the trial of persons under eighteen and was conducted with great success, though the system of probation officers was not introduced. A juvenile court was also established at Toronto (Canada) on the South Australian model.

The movement when once fully appreciated went ahead very rapidly. In the United States Illinois was the first state to call a distinct children’s court into existence, and Judge Richard Tuthill was the pioneer at Chicago, where the court was established in 1899. Many states followed suit, including New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, Kansas, Colorado, Indiana and others, till the number rose to nineteen in 1906. In New York, where juvenile probation is supervised by the Society for the Protection of Children, there is a separate children’s court with rooms attached, where the children for detention wait till they are brought in for trial. Brooklyn has also a children’s court. In Pennsylvania, where the juvenile court was at first opposed as unconstitutional, the difficulty was met by first bringing the child before the magistrate in the police court, a course which (though followed by his transferring the case to the special court) perpetuated the very evils the children’s court was intended to avoid; the work of probation was, however, most effectively carried out, chiefly by female officers. The Chicago Juvenile Court sits twice weekly under an especially appointed judge, and policemen act as probation officers to some extent. The court of Indianapolis, however, gained the reputation of being the most complete and perfect in the United States. It works with a large and highly efficient band of volunteer probation officers under a chief. The juvenile court of Denver, Colorado, attained remarkable results under Judge B. Lindsey, whose magnetic personality, wonderful comprehension of boy nature, and extraordinary influence over them achieved great results. The court meets once a fortnight, when fresh cases are tried and boys already on probation report themselves, often to the number of two hundred at a time. The latter appear before the judge in batches, each hands in his school report in a sealed letter, and according to its purport receives praise or blame, or he may be committed to the Detention House. An efficient court was also constituted at Baltimore, Maryland, with a judge especially chosen to preside, probation being for fixed periods, varying from three months to three years, and children being brought back to the court for parole or discharge, or, if necessary, committal to the house of one of the philanthropic societies. In Washington, D.C., the system of having no distinct court or judge, but holding a separate session, was followed, and it was found that numbers of children came to the court for help and guidance, looking upon the judge for the time being as their friend and counsellor. Probation in this instance offered peculiar difficulties on account of the colour question, two-thirds of the children having negro blood and a white boy being always preferred for a vacant situation. Throughout, the action of juvenile courts in the United States has been to bring each individual into “human touch” with kindly helpful workers striving to lead the young idea aright and train it to follow the straight path. It was the result always of the effort of private persons and not due to government initiative, indeed the advocates and champions of the system only established it by overcoming strong opposition from the authorities.

Progress in the same direction has been made in England. The home office had recommended London police magistrates to keep children’s cases separate from those of adults; the same practice or something analogous obtained in many county boroughs, such as Bath, Birmingham, Bristol, Bolton, Bradford, Hull, Manchester, Walsall, Halifax and others, and the Children Act 1908 definitely established children’s courts. This act enacted that courts of summary jurisdiction when hearing charges, &c., against children or young persons should, unless the child or young person is charged jointly with an adult, sit in a different building or room from that in which the ordinary sittings of the court are held, or on different days or at different times. Furthermore, provision must be made for preventing persons apparently under the age of sixteen years whilst being conveyed to or from court, or whilst waiting before or after their attendance in court, from associating with adults, unless such adults are charged jointly with them. The act prohibits any persons other than members and officers of the court, the parties to the case, their solicitors, counsel and other persons directly concerned in the case, from being present in a juvenile court, except by leave of the court. Bona-fide press representatives are also excepted. The main object of the whole system is to keep the child, the embryotic offender who has probably erred from ignorance or the pressure of circumstances or misfortune, altogether free from the taint or contagion that attaches to criminal proceedings. The moral atmosphere of a legal tribunal is injurious to the youthful mind, and children who appear before a bench, whether as accused or as witness, gain a contemptuous familiarity with legal processes.

The most beneficial action of the children’s court comes from its association with the system of personal guardianship and close supervision exercised by the probation officers, official and voluntary. Where the intervention of the newly constituted tribunal can not only save the child from evil association when first arrested, but can rescue him without condemnation and committal to prison, its functions may be relied upon to diminish crime by cutting it off at the source. Much depends upon the quality and temperament of the presiding authority. Where a judge with special aptitude can be appointed, firm, sympathetic, tactful and able to gain the confidence of those brought before him, he may do great good, by dealing with each individual and not merely with his offence, realizing that the court does not exist to condemn but to strengthen and give a fresh chance. Where the children’s court is only a branch of the existing jurisdiction worked by the regular magistrate or judge fulfilling his ordinary functions and not specially chosen, the beneficial results are not so noticeable.  (A. G.)