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The Beginnings of the Juvenile Justice System

The detention of juveniles in New York City began shortly after the New York State Penitentiary opened its doors in 1797. Since juvenile crimes were rare at that time, the state preferred for parents to deal with the disciplinary issues involving their own children; a practice rooted in English Common Law.

Parental authority was the accepted first tenet of youth treatment, and the state was hesitant to assume the failing parent's duties. By the beginning of the 19th century, however, attitudes toward the treatment of crime had changed. The state, it was thought, could serve as a rehabilitation tool, rather than simply the arbiter of punishment.

Juvenile Justice historian Merrill Sobie explains: "A reform of the Age of Enlightenment, imprisonment was predicated on the theory that criminals could be rehabilitated through solitude, reflection, and religious training."


Accordingly, juveniles began to be tried in criminal courts. If imprisonment could help the adult criminal, it was thought, then it would surely assist a youth less practiced in crime. Imprisoning juveniles, however, mixed impressionable youths with more seasoned adult criminals. Reformers quickly recognized the need for the separate detention of youth as a necessary step toward the achievement of their rehabilitative ideal.

Thus, Juvenile Justice began in New York with the adoption of two similar, yet substantively different principles; that delinquents could be rehabilitated, and that they must be held separately from older, worldlier criminals.

In the early 19th century, the New York Society for the Prevention of Pauperism began to lobby intensively for a separate juvenile justice institution modeled on the prison system.

Like many upper-class New Yorkers faced with the City's rapid population growth, members of the Society had become concerned that the pursuit of commerce would overshadow the quest for moral principles. Their efforts led the New York State Assembly to approve construction of The House of Refuge for delinquent children in 1824.

House of Refuge
An 1825 Lithograph of the HOUSE OF REFUGE, located at Broadway and 23rd Street. This building is believed to be the City's first juvenile detention facility, housing both delinquent boys and girls.

(HOUSE OF REFUGE,Lithograph, New York Historical Society, negative number 20820)

The House was to be operated by the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents, which the Assembly incorporated as a subsidiary of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism.

The House of Refuge opened on January 1, 1825, at the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Streets, then a semi-rural area of Manhattan. For 35 years, any child in the state convicted of committing a criminal offense was sent to the House of Refuge in lieu of imprisonment.

In 1851, the Children's Aid Society built the New York Juvenile Asylum to house children under the age of 12.

The New York Juvenile Asylum
The New York Juvenile Asylum located at Tenth Avenue and 176th Street. Incorporated by a legislative act in 1851, the New York Juvenile Asylum provided residential care for the very young.
1861-1916 >
Related Links
NYC Family Court
NYS Office of Children and Family Services
Office of Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention
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