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8 Chapter 1 History and Current Tensions in Juvenile Corrections Wildwood House, the facility where we conducted our fieldwork, did not exist in a vacuum. Nor do we believe it was unique in composition, challenges, or successes. By all accounts, this institution, like other juvenile correctional facilities across the United States, grappled with the push and pull of competing demands and measures of success from several different audiences and stakeholders. The young men who spent four to six months in the program, and the staff who supervised, challenged, and offered treatment support to them all, lived under the shadow of society’s ambivalence about the proper uses of juvenile incarceration. In order to appreciate the complexities of the residents’ lives inside the walls of Wildwood House, the context of the larger system must be addressed. This chapter begins with an overview of the major movements and paradigm shifts that have shaped juvenile corrections in the United States over the last century. Examining this history reveals several key pendulum swings in the balance of punishment versus rehabilitation as strategies to address the problem of youth crime. The contemporary system can be viewed as a product of these historically rooted tensions, as current controversial topics such as sentencing youth as adults and the humane treatment of youth within correctional facilities are directly related to questions surrounding the fundamental value of incarcerating young people. The bulk of this chapter is thus devoted to the current system, its documented troubles, and conflicting perspectives on why and how it should be reformed. Historical Background Since its inception, the juvenile corrections system in the United States has experienced a tumultuous trajectory. Following the Progressive Era’s experimental origins of the juvenile justice system, several key paradigm shifts in thinking and practice regarding the incarceration of youth have unfolded. A review of these shifts reveals the seemingly elusive balance between the goals of rehabilitation and punishment as they have been embedded within a single system. While the discussion of these trends in this section is by no History and Current Tensions in Juvenile Corrections 9 means exhaustive, we hone in on key historical turning points and events that have contributed to the current, uneasy crossroads in juvenile corrections policy and prospects for reform. The Child Savers and the Early Juvenile Court: 1890 to 1920 The turn of the twentieth century witnessed a movement toward the institutionalization of courts and systems of confinement specifically designated for youth as separate from adults. This change coincided with the emergence of adolescence as a distinct developmental stage characterized by strife, confusion, and the loss of opportunities for meaningful social contributions on the part of young people formerly seen as capable of fulfilling adult roles. This new construction of adolescence resulted in an increased politicization of the concept of childhood and fundamental transformations in the social meanings of young adulthood (Lesko 1996; Lesko 2001). The 1904 publication of G. Stanley Hall’s two-volume book Adolescence legitimized this category in legal and medical discourses and drew public and professional attention to this newly created developmental stage, now framed for the first time as not-yet-adults who were also no longer children. The creation of social institutions such as the juvenile courts and public secondary schools paralleled these new theoretical and cultural constructions of adolescence as a pivotal life juncture with a set of developmental concerns warranting adult guidance and intervention. Occurring alongside these new constructions of childhood and adolescence , the Progressive Era child-saving movement emphasized civic responsibility for the well-being of children and youth. The child savers grew out of a group of mid-nineteenth-century religious and moral reformers mainly from Eastern US cities who were alarmed by the conditions of institutional care for “wayward children” (orphans and delinquents), often forced to live in almshouses or work camps alongside adult prisoners. By the late 1890s, a new wave of white, upper-middle-class and highly educated female reformers joined and subsequently moved the child-saving platform to the center of the national political stage. Noted settlement house leaders such as Jane Addams, Sophonisba Breckinridge, Grace and Edith Abbott, and Julia Lathrop launched a number of successful policy campaigns focused on the needs of poor, mostly European immigrant children and families such as child labor legislation, compulsory education, mother’s pensions, and foster care (Katz 1986). As part of this broader child-saving agenda, the first official juvenile court was established in Chicago, Illinois in 1899. By 1928, all...


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