by Steven L. Schlossman. DeKalb, IL: Northern Illinois University Press, 2005. 343pp. Paper. $22.50. ISBN: 0875806031.

Reviewed by Lucy McGough, Paul M. Hebert Law Center, Louisiana State University. Email: Lucy.McGough [at]


TRANSFORMING JUVENILE JUSTICE is a re-issue of a book that was originally published in 1977 and. has been widely cited as an example of the social history of a juvenile court and a nearby “reform school” in the same early period of development. Steven Schlossman studied newspaper reports concerning the Wisconsin State Reform School for Boys in Waukesha (just West of Milwaukee) and transcripts and other archival material stored in early records of the Milwaukee Juvenile Court.

The formal thesis of the book is to examine where the truth lies in competing historical portraits of nineteenth and early twentieth century juvenile institutions. Certainly Schlossman proves that the Chicago Juvenile Court, typically touted as the first in the nation, was not representative of other juvenile courts in less urban areas, with more modest private and public endowment for experimental research into the causes and cures of delinquency. The sturdy, slightly seedy Milwaukee Juvenile Court mainly handled the delinquencies and deprivations of lower class, ghetto-dwelling European immigrants with minimal education. There was no Institute for the Study of Delinquency and initially the probation “staff” were all volunteers. Preserved hearing transcripts demonstrate the temperamental differences of the six white men who were Milwaukee Juvenile Court judges from 1901-1920. As Schlossman notes, none of them fits the bluff, hearty judicial stereotype of the charismatic Ben Lindsay of the Denver Juvenile Court, whom many assume typify the early leaders of the juvenile courts.

The new Introduction prepared for the book’s reissue is a comradely delight for anyone who has engaged in historical research. The book began as an investigation of nineteenth century institutions housing mostly delinquent children, though as he found, indigent and vagrant children often were tossed into the mix. After exhausting official records and reports of the state reform school of Wisconsin in Waukesha, Schlossman decided to plumb the unofficial reports about the School that were covered in either of the town’s two weekly newspapers and often the principal Milwaukee newspaper as well: “[T]here was no way to predict when an item on the reform school would appear” (p.xiii). Moreover, the articles were usually quite short and therefore easy to miss without a careful review of each page.” He read forty-four years worth of newspapers, from 1857 to 1900! It was no doubt a tense exercise, with only an occasional gem, but also a wondrous immersion in small town culture in another time. [*492]

That reform school research led him into wanting to know how the decision was made to send a particular child to a reform school. Was it to clear the streets of vagrants and criminally-inclined poor – the “social control” model? Or instead were the court and its officers attempting to rehabilitate the child, beginning with removing him from a high-risk environment – the “child saver” model? After attempting in vain to gain access to early twentieth century juvenile court records in several states, largely because those records no longer existed, Schlossman lucked into an interview with a Chief Probation Officer at the Milwaukee Juvenile Court who led him down to the basement where there was a large cage. Inside were hundreds of boxes, one of which was marked “1” and carried the date 1901, the year the Court was founded. Schlossman was permitted to take a sampling from the 12,000 cases heard by the Court between 1901 and 1920. From these moldy records he abstracted an historical portrait of a fledgling court.

Schlossman concludes that there was no single motivation for the creation of the juvenile court or the special institutions for the care of delinquents. A mixture of social forces coalesced: humanitarian impulses, sociocultural pressures fueled by the assimilation of immigrants and economic constraints (courts and probation were cheaper than institutionalization). The advocates for the new court were dreamers. As Judge Julian Mack of the Chicago Juvenile Court wrote in his often quoted 1909 HARVARD LAW REVIEW article,

[The criminal court] put but one question, “Has he committed this crime?” It did not inquire, “What is the best thing to do for this lad?” It did not even punish him in a manner that would tend to improve him; the punishment was visited in proportion tot he degree of wrongdoing evidenced by the single act; not by the needs of the boy, not by the needs of the state. (Mack 1909, at 104)

As it has turned out, there were no simple solutions, and at the core of the conceptualization of the new court was its antithesis. The most striking feature of the early Milwaukee court, an archetype of juvenile courts throughout the country, is the transmutation from the ideal of individualized assessment and treatment to raw unbridled judicial discretion. A transcript of a 1907 delinquency hearing in the Milwaukee Juvenile Court reveals this exchange as the judge questioned a twelve-year-old who was caught smoking in a local park, and who was ultimately charged with loitering and incorrigibility. (There was also evidence in the case that the child (James) had lied about another matter):

Court: Now you smoked occasionally?
James: I only smoked once.
Court: Only once. Did it make you sick?...
James: No sir.
Court: Then you have been in the habit of smoking before?
James: No sir. . .
Court: Did you ever tell your mother to go to hell?
James: No sir.
Court: Didn’t you tell her the other day? You swore at your mother, didn’t you?
James: No sir.
Court [addressing the factory inspector] What did he say?
Inspector: He says, “You don’t know what you are talking about – Go on.” In [*493] a very saucy manner – very saucy to her – and when I talked to her she says he is always that way – could not do anything with the boy. (p.177)

Later in the exchange, the record reflects that the judge became “outraged and committed him on the spot” to the reform school at Waukesha. The judge then lectured James:

You wouldn’t want me to believe all that. I am afraid my boy that you are a kind of pleasant prevaricator. You are a dangerous boy and need training....You must be taught the difference between right and wrong – you don’t seem to comprehend started out on a bad road. You would land, after you grow up, with the training you have now, you would kill somebody – that is, if you thought you could get away, and I am going to send you to the Industrial School. (p.178)

The downside to discretion to hand-tailor a rehabilitative program for James is arbitrariness and abuse of power. This transcript evinces the “worst of both worlds” that Justice Fortas worried about in GAULT (1967): the capricious misuse of the ill-constrained power to punish. Probation and counseling, the early Court’s only remedy, might have salvaged James as he and his family endured his transition to adolescence. There was little to suggest that Waukesha would do more than warehouse James until he reached majority.

This historical journey really comes alive with the transcripts of the hearings. The hearings could be confused with the proceedings of any five juvenile judges, in any place in the United States in 2007. The clients are the same: impoverished, socially handicapped families many of whom ask the court to take their out-of-control children away and institutionalize them. (One of the joys of this book is that Schlossman memorializes nuggets of turn-of-century wisdom, including the “nine Ds of domestic problems: darkness, dirt, disease, dress, debt, distress, drink, disaster, and death” (Bainbridge 1897, at 49)). There were allegations of delinquency that often could just as easily have been brought as complaints of abuse or neglect, both sides of the same coin. The probation officers are familiar: some dedicated, long-suffering and others burned out years ago by unrewarded faith. The judges are by turns modeling and mocking the wise authority figure imagined by Judge Mack; on balance, they display a dismaying arrogance, seemingly affronted that delinquents continue to parade before them.

TRANSFORMING JUVENILE JUSTICE reminds the modern reader that the intertwined concepts of the juvenile court and juvenile rehabilitation are and always have been hopelessly idealistic. The gerund “Transforming” speaks in the present progressive, an apt encapsulation of all attempted reforms of the court and system.


Mack, Julian. 1909. “The Juvenile Court.” 23 HARVARD LAW REVIEW 104-122.

IN RE GAULT, 361 U.S. 1 (1967).

© Copyright 2007 by the author, Lucy McGough.