1900 to 1960’s: the early Juvenile Court System and Child Psychology

1900 to 1960’s: the early Juvenile Court System and Child Psychology

By Maura Downey

During the early days of juvenile delinquent reform, many children stayed in reformatory houses, such as this, the Lyman School for Boys


The early Juvenile Court System relied heavily on the social ideals of reform at the time, such as rehabilitating children and adolescents back into society. The court system followed the concept of Parens Patriae, where the court assumes responsibility, treatment, and rehabilitation of the incarcerated juvenile or child. During this time, the eugenic theory highly influenced how the public viewed criminal behavior and the differential social status between poor, middle class, and wealthy.

And while psychology and the juvenile court system were not quite “married,” new fields of psychology were in the throes of development, such as child and developmental psychology, and intelligence testing.

The first scientific concept of adolescence:

In 1904, G. Stanley Hall published his book, Adolescence: Its psychology and its relations to physiology, anthropology, sociology, sex, crime, religion, and education, Vol 1. Through his research, Hall found a stark difference between crime rate, age, and gender, with a “marked increase of crime[s] [committed] at the age of twelve to fourteen,” (Hall 1904).

In conclusion to his research, Hall argued that juvenile criminals “as a class are inferior in body and mind to normal children,” and suggested corporal punishment as a probable solution for changing behavior. Likewise, Hall warned against solitary confinement and punishment, due to adverse effects on adolescents who he argued needed more socialization. And while Hall made arguments for stronger parental influence on children, he also noted that overall, “a period of semi criminality is normal for all healthy boys,” and their surroundings would determine whether the antisocial behavior would continue into adulthood. Hall also argued that intelligence was a strong factor in determining whether a child or adolescent would continue in criminal behavior, and suggested education as the best source of prevention, especially during the child’s early years (Hall 1904).

With Hall’s new research on adolescence and criminality, more of an argument was formulated towards the brevity of a correlation between an individual’s intelligence and capacity for criminality.  

 Binet’s IQ test-

Alfred Binet administering an intelligence test on a parisian child.

In 1905, Alfred Binet and Theodore Simon published works from studying intelligence and “subnormal” individuals. Over the course of their research, Binet and SImon concluded that judgement and comprehension were of utmost importance to determine one’s intelligence (Binet & Simon 1916). Of course, with criminals and juvenile offenders, it is arguable that “good judgement” is lacking. So, with Binet and Simon’s findings, the administration of intelligence testing, specifically the Stanford-Binet intelligence testing, was recommended and highly utilized by the juvenile court system during the first half of the twentieth century.

The early juvenile court system:

Because the juvenile court system was focused on rehabilitation and was set up to be less punitive than the adult criminal courts, many professionals outside of the traditional court system were instrumental in “guiding” children and adolescents towards becoming good citizens. Child welfare specialists, social workers, and private psychologists were utilized both in the court and outside to provide services to rehabilitate children into society. Likewise, training schools and child community services also provided alternatives for juvenile offenders to learn new methods of behavior. (Borum 2004).


Media References (in order of appearance):

Lyman School for boys image:

Bolt, D. (2008, April 25). [Hillside Cottage in Westborough]. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from http://freepages.history.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~history/grafton/LymanSchool.html

G. Stanley Hall image:

Hesperides Press. (2009). [Digital image]. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from http://artistsspace.org/jon-savage/

Binet image:

Skare, K. (2010, December). [Binet administering an intelligence test]. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from http://a100educationalpolicy.pbworks.com/w/page/4076695/History%20of%20Traditional%20Assessment

Boy in court video:

Probation and Parole Association (Director). (2012, June 30). Boy in court [Video]. Retrieved October 15, 2012, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gBPeCQzHu5w




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