A very difficult problem in studying juvenile delinquency is deciding upon an exact definition of the term itself. No two authorities agree in this matter. In a broad sense, juvenile delinquency refers to the antisocial acts of children and of young people under age. Such acts are either specifically forbidden by law or may be lawfully interpreted as constituting delinquency, or as requiring some form of official action. According to one authority, delinquency actually has many different meanings.
There are legal delinquents (those committing antisocial acts as defined by law), detected delinquents (those exhibiting antisocial behavior, for example), agency delinquents (those detected who reach an agency), alleged delinquents (those apprehended, brought to court), and adjudged delinquents (those found guilty). (Lowell Juilliard Carr, 1941). In most juvenile research, the term "juvenile delinquent" denotes a child who has been officially acted upon by the courts or police officers.
The age which the term "juvenile" covers varies in different states, ranging from the ages of sixteen to twenty-one, with the majority of states considering individuals as juvenile if they are under eighteen and over six. A Massachusetts law defines a juvenile delinquent as "a child between seven and seventeen who violates any city ordinance or town by-law or commits an offense not punishable by death.
" Under this law nearly every child within this age range is, or will be, a delinquent-by-definition. History The early courts dealt only with neglected and dependent children, with children whose custody rival claimants sought, and with children who were charged with specific offenses. In general, dependent and neglected children have had much less to do with the juvenile-court movement than the delinquent child.
The movement was started principally as a protest against the inhumane attitude of the criminal law, and the court that administers it, toward offending children, and only incidentally as a protest against the unorganized charity work of private agencies and the unsatisfactory state provision for the care of neglected and dependent or destitute children. (Brenda Geiger, Michael Fischer, 1995)
Various attempts have been made from the early days of English and American history to save offending children from the rigidity of the common law, but the history of law discloses that such attempts were only sporadic and in many instances have accomplished very little. Stuart Garnett in his book, Children and the Law, tells us that as early as the tenth century, the Saxon King Athelstane not only attempted the reformation of juvenile offenders but enacted a certain law which embodied some of the germs of modern juvenile-court legislation, and especially of probation.
1 But there are few records of any children who were accorded the privilege of this and subsequent statutes. From the tenth century until the reign of Henry VIII very little is known of the law affecting children. All through the Middle Ages, true to the general tendency in the criminal law of the time, offending children were treated with great severity which reaches its climax in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. A child of eight years, who had "with malice, revenge, craft and cunning" set fire to a barn, was convicted of felony and duly hanged.
One boy of ten, who confessed to have murdered his bed-fellow, was condemned to death and "all the judges agreed to the imposition of this penalty because the sparing of this boy simply on account of his tender years might be of dangerous consequence to the public by propagating a notion that children might commit such atrocious crimes with impunity. " Another boy of ten was sentenced to death because it appeared that he hid the body he had killed, which hiding manifested a consciousness of guilt and a discretion to discern between good and evil.
As late as 1833 a death sentence was pronounced, but fortunately not carried out, upon a child of nine who broke a glass and stole two-pennyworth of paint. Many other cases of hanging children of tender years during the last century may be cited. The history of modern treatment of juvenile offenders had its rise during the period of industrial revolution and of the religious and moral revival at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
It is more or less directly connected with the factory legislation in favor of women and children and the development of the woman movement in general. The first part of the nineteenth century, however, witnessed the movement for the reform of the adult criminal and the crusade against slavery, a controversy so all-absorbing that little reforming energy could be spared for the cause of "juvenile criminals," which did not sufficiently obtrude itself upon the public attention.
It was not until the close of the first half of the nineteenth century that the conscience of the public seems to have been exercised over the question of "juvenile crime. " It is about this time that the first juvenile reformatories were established and some of the important features of the modern juvenile-court legislation made their appearance.