Cover for GETIS: The Juvenile Court and the Progressives

The Juvenile Court and the Progressives

The author traces the many failings of today’s juvenile court system directly to the progressive reformers in Chicago who instituted the system in the belief that the state and science could “fix” the problems of troubled and youthful lawbreakers.

Today's troubled juvenile court system has its roots in Progressive-era Chicago, a city one observer described as "first in violence" and "deepest in dirt." Examining the vision and methods of the original proponents of the Cook County Juvenile Court, Victoria Getis uncovers the court's intrinsic flaws as well as the sources of its debilitation in our own time.

Spearheaded by a group of Chicago women, including Jane Addams, Lucy Flower, and Julia Lathrop, the juvenile court bill was pushed through the legislature by an eclectic coalition of progressive reformers, both women and men. Like many progressive institutions, the court reflected an unswerving faith in the wisdom of the state and in the ability of science to resolve the problems brought on by industrial capitalism.

A hybrid institution combining legal and social welfare functions, the court was not intended to punish youthful lawbreakers but rather to provide guardianship for the vulnerable. In this role, the state was permitted great latitude to intervene in families where it detected a lack of adequate care for children. The court also became a living laboratory, as children in the court became the subjects of research by criminologists, statisticians, educators, state officials, economists, and, above all, practitioners of the new disciplines of sociology and psychology.

The Chicago reformers had worked for large-scale social change, but the means they adopted eventually gave rise to the social sciences, where objectivity was prized above concrete solutions to social problems, and to professional groups that abandoned goals of structural reform. The Juvenile Court and the Progressives argues persuasively that the current impotence of the juvenile court system stems from contradictions that lie at the very heart of progressivism.

"When the first juvenile court was founded in Chicago just over a century ago, it was a radical innovation. . . . The juvenile court did not spontaneously evolve. . . . It came about through the struggles and sustained efforts of a group of educated, middle class women who believed that the authority and resources of the state could be used to harness scientific knowledge to improve social conditions. Getis has written an eminently readable and interesting book which documents in considerable detail the efforts of Jane Addams, Lucy Flowqer, Juila Lathrop and their many friends and colleagues to remove children from the adult courts and promote a new concern with child welfare." -- Journal of Sociology and Social Welfare

"The book is well written and researched, and Getis's cogent argument forcefully drives the test to its justifiable conclusions. The prose is peppered with a number of interesting questions." -- David Blanke, Journal of Illinois History

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