How Chicago Women Created The World’s First Juvenile Justice System

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WBEZ on 05/11/2019 by Quinn Myers

Today, if you’re under 18 and charged with a crime, your case will likely be decided, and punishment meted out, through a legal system designed for minors. But until the beginning of the 20th century, kids under the age of 18 were tried — and jailed or imprisoned — alongside adults. That is, until the world’s first juvenile court was established right here in Chicago in 1899.

Andrea Krieg, a criminal justice professor at Elmhurst College, has read about the court’s formation in various textbooks and course materials throughout her career.

“There is [always] one sentence that says ‘the first juvenile court was created in Cook County, Illinois,’ and then it just keeps moving on,” she says.

It has left her wanting to know more. So she asked Curious City:Chicago had the first juvenile court in the whole United States. What is the history of it?

The framework for the nation’s first juvenile court was created in the late 19th century by a group of Progressive Era women in Chicago. They were impassioned social activists, and many were among the first generation of American women to attend college. At the time, increased immigration, rapid industrialization, and urbanization presented new challenges and inequities. From their base at Jane Addams’ Hull House they envisioned, advocated for and created bold new solutions, including a separate justice system that would be designed specifically to meet the unique needs of kids and families.

But as it evolved over the 20th century, America’s juvenile justice system started to move away from its original conception, and ended up looking more and more like the adult criminal system it had hoped to replace.

Today, those shifts have presented a wide range of challenges. But they’ve also inspired a new era of reckoning and reflection.

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