Until 1825, it was standard practice to lock up delinquent children with adult criminals. As a New York Times report put it, this often served only to make the youthful offenders “adepts in vice” by the time they were discharged from prison. To address this problem, a group of concerned citizens in New York, primarily Quakers, formed the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism and Crime. The 1823 report they commissioned suggested that young petty offenders needed their own system of adjudication, counseling, and incarceration. They proposed a “House of Refuge” that pioneered the concept of juvenile reformatories.
The society took up a subscription that raised $20,000 (philanthropist Thomas Eddy was one prominent giver), and these donations were used to renovate a donated military arsenal and set it up to receive and redirect underage offenders. The organization changed its name to the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, and assumed management of the House of Refuge. It operated as a privately managed facility to which statewide courts could commit juveniles. The facility received not only those who had already committed crimes but also young people who were vagrant and destitute and deemed by authorities to be on a path to delinquency. Within ten years 1,678 inmates resided there, spending their days in supervised labor.
“Typically, male inmates produced brushes, cane chairs, brass nails, and shoes. The female inmates made uniforms, worked in the laundry, and performed other domestic work,” according to state archives. Both sexes received instruction in literacy and religion, and they could be bound into apprenticeships with outside employers who promised to supervise them. The boys tended to be sent to farms, the girls to homes in need of domestic laborers. The system drew considerable praise over time. In the 1830s and 1840s, such visitors as Alexis de Tocqueville, Frances Trollope, and Charles Dickens cited it favorably. By 1840, this successful example had been copied in 25 other cities, and the desirability of a separate track for administering justice to juveniles had been established.
- 1860 New York Times article, nytimes.com/1860/01/23/news/our-city-charities-the-new-york-house-of-refuge-for-juvenile-delinquents.html
- History in Stanford Law Review, jthomasniu.org/class/589/Readings/juvjust-hist2.pdf