Reforming the Juvenile System in St. Louis: The Role of Social Organizations, 1926-1974
Before the turn of the twentieth century, no separate institutions dealing with children who committed crimes existed. Children, no matter what age, were housed in prisons alongside some of the most hardened criminals. During the Progressive Era, however, many groups of people wanted to reform the justice system as well as other political and social aspects of American life. In particular, women’s social organizations played a major role in promoting reform for the juvenile justice system. Little by little the system began to improve, but it was a long process. It took much effort to get the right legislation passed, and in turn, make certain it was enforced.
Institutions such as the juvenile court system, probation/parole services, juvenile detentions, and state training schools were created to rehabilitate troubled children. Such institutions were continuously scrutinized by organizations intent on transforming social welfare.
The primary argument of this paper is that organizations such as the League of Women Voters, the Bureau for Men, the Health and Welfare Council, and the Urban League predominately took responsibility for seeking change in the juvenile justice operation, and making it happen. The public generally felt indifferent to the plight of the juvenile offender considering them just a problem to society, thus community organizations were an important supporting factor in pushing reform.
Chicago was the first city to create a separate juvenile justice system and Missouri became the eighth state to follow Chicago’s lead in 1903.1 The rationale for separate facilities was that children should not be kept in jail cells with adults and should not be treated as criminals. The overall consensus regarding delinquents was that while they committed crimes, they still had a chance to be rehabilitated and become productive members of society.2 According to a 1934 radio address, “[t]he principle of the Juvenile Court law was that no child under the age of seventeen shall be considered or treated as a criminal [and] that a child under that age shall not be arrested, indicted, convicted, imprisoned, or punished as a criminal.”3 The age limit defining a juvenile has changed, but typically has been somewhere between 16 and 21. While this research seeks to uncover insight into the reformation of the juvenile justice system from the late 1920s to the early 1970s, historians have paid closer attention to juvenile justice reform during the Progressive Era than any other specific time period.
Elizabeth J. Clapp’s article, “Welfare and the Role of Women: The Juvenile Court Movement,” argues that women were the most concerned with the welfare of children due to their place in society as caretaker. Clapp explains how women began to appear in community service ventures during the 19th century and that their justification for temporarily leaving the private sphere was, “because women were pure and virtuous, and because it was their duty to protect their homes and families from corrupt male politics….”4 In assisting troubled youth and the poor, women were still fulfilling their maternal roles, but this time, to society as a whole. Clapp argues that women were the dominant driving force behind establishing juvenile courts in several states during the Progressive Era.
Mothers of All Children, also by Elizabeth J. Clapp, looks at the rise of the juvenile court system in America during the Progressive Era, by focusing on Chicago as a case study. Clapp explains the significance of women’s clubs and social organizations in reforming for juvenile correction facilities. The book discusses women as, “the guardians of the nation’s virtues,” a role which she offers as the reason women were concerned with social welfare. Clapp puts much emphasis on the role of women in fighting for the establishment of a separate justice system for juveniles. Her…