"Juvenile delinquent" is not such a new category after all?

Matt D. mattd at SPAMtfn.net
Mon Dec 4 08:25:04 MST 2000

Carrol wrote:

> Lou, let's approach the general question with a similar question in a
> realm that does not arouse [:-)] so many distracting complexities. As I
> said in my last post, "Juvenile Delinquent" is a category that came into
> existence during my own lifetime. That is, no one really *thought* about
> youthful crime or misbehavior as a separate social category demanding
> independent attention before the 1940s.

We should always be careful when using absolutes.  From the "Fourth Annual
Report of the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents in the
City of New York (*1829*)", reprinted in _Antebellum American Culture_,
David Brion Davis, ed. (Penn. State U.P. 1997 [D.C. Health & Co. 1979]):

"Previously to the establishment of the House of Refuge [the Society's
alternative to confining youth in adult prisons], there were more than five
hundred young persons annually committed, in the city of New York, either as
criminals or vagrants; now the officers of justice do not find half that
number ....  It's operation, in this respect, is not only in the present
time, but future generations will be rendered more pure and virtuous, by the
reformation of the depraved youths of the present race [i.e. generation],
who, if they were left to their ordinary course, would have been matured in
vice....  Very generally, the children committed to this asylum are orphans,
or if not, they are so neglected, or misled by their parents, as to be in a
worse condition than if they had none -- deserted and in poverty, often in
absolute want, and without a roof under which they can claim shelter; not
only without religious or moral instruction, but in many instances taught to
be vicious by precept as well as by example ....  Under such circumstances,
what could be more unjust than to visit the young delinquent with the same
kind or degree of punishment, which would be due to a deliberate offender of
mature years.

"In almost every case, the discipline of the institution works a
reformation.  The moral facilities are awakened, the thoughts of the young
offender are turned, often with regret upon his past life, and he is led to
resolve on a better course."

So, "juvenile delinquent" was an identifiable category (and a specific term
of criminological/moral practice) at least 170 years ago.  This category was
deployed in debates about the classification and disposition of offenders,
based on their age as the primary indicator of their moral development,
level of responsibility for their crimes, and ability to be "rehabilitated."

As for "teenagers," the Philadelphia Working Men's Committee, agitating for
public schools modeled on the Swiss Hofwyl system (comprising a "union of
agricultural and mechanical with literary and scientific instruction") in a
manifesto from *1830*, excerpted in the same collection, wrote:

"When we behold the hundreds, perhaps thousands of youth, who, between the
ages of 14 and 21 are daily and nightly seduced around or into the
innumerable dens of vice, licensed and unlicensed, that throng our suburbs,
we are constrained to believe that in many if not in most cases, the
unconquerable habit that destroys the morals, ruins the constitution,
sacrifices the character, and at last murders both soul and body of its
victim, is first acquired during the thoughtless period of juvenile

In any event, I offer these examples for what they are worth.  Folks might
also want to take a look at David Rothman's _The Discovery of the Asylum:
Social Order and Disorder in the New Republic_ (Little, Brown & Co. 1971,
but surely reprinted since then), a classic, though far from perfect, work
on the co-evolution of Foucaultian institutions and categories of
"governmentalization" in the United States.


-- Matt D.

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