Extensions of Reform: Reformatory Origins

The Origins of Juvenile Incarceration (1816-1825)

In the early 19th century, amidst a wave of social reform in all sectors of American society, the pioneering of the modern penitentiary system was closely accompanied by a unique, novel invention: juvenile incarceration.  In 1824, the New York State Legislature, pressured by wealthy and professional elites (Figure 1), passed a bill establishing the New York House of Refuge, the first juvenile correctional facility in the United States.  This House of Refuge (HOR), as well as subsequent imitators that sprang up in other states such as Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were governed by a common philosophy, known widely as “preventative detention”, which focused on preserving the ambitions and morality of the youth that existed in cities before their souls became “unsalvageable” due to the corruption of crime.  The birth of this philosophy brought with it surprising implications in the American justice system, such as the implementation of different legal proceedings for children.  Consequentially, the innovation of the modern juvenile correctional facility was most influential in motivating American society to, for the first time in its history, consider its juvenile population as a distinct group with special characteristics.  This paper will focus on the factors that inspired the New York State Legislature to establish the New York House of Refuge.


Figure 1

The Penitentiary in New York

In 1797, the New York Penitentiary opened, accepting adult offenders, but for the first time in U.S. history also incarcerated children.  It should be stressed that at this time, juveniles were not seen as a special population with certain tendencies, but simply as a component of the total American population.  Furthermore, prior to 1797, juvenile crime was so uncommon that the state preferred juvenile infractions to be dealt with internally.

In 1801, Thomas Eddy, a highly influential prison reformer who established Newgate prison in Greenwich Village, New York in 1797, became one of the most notable proponents of juvenile correction. In his An account of the State prison or penitentiary house, in the city of New-York, he strongly approved of asuitable prison solely for the confinement of boys under sixteen years of age.”[i]  However, this sentiment that juveniles in American cities needed special attention in order to be saved from the corruption of petty crimes (and later, more serious offenses) was not particularly well received by the broader American public, primarily due to a lack of evidence.  However, by 1816, the amount of evidence for Eddy’s case began to increase dramatically (see below).


Figure 2

The Society for the Reformation of Juveniles

In 1816, The Society for the Prevention of Pauperism (SPP), a group of affluent, influential gentlemen formally organized – above all else, they shared a belief that juveniles being grouped together with adult convicts produced disastrous results: “The Hardened convict will maintain his abandoned principles, and the novice in guilt will become his pupil”.  After conducting extensive surveys of the New York Penitentiary system, the SPP concluded that juveniles in particular were receiving inadequate (and in some cases appalling) treatment for petty crimes such as vagrancy or petty theft.[ii] The situation appeared so dire that by 1824, the SPP, which had initially focused on the reduction of child poverty within New York City, reorganized itself as the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents (SRJD) and began to press the New York State Legislature to create separate institutions for the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders.  On January 1, 1825, the New York House of Refuge began accepting juveniles of any race or gender; it was located at the intersection of Broadway and 23rd Street which was then a fairly rural section of Manhattan.[iii] (pictured below)


Figure 3

At its inception, the SRJD described the institution as a place where boys under a certain age could be “subjected to a course of treatment, that will afford a prompt and energetic corrective of their vicious propensities.”  This line, from the New York City House of Refuge mission statement, highlight a crucial aspect of the juvenile correction movement – the concept of Preventative Detention.

Legal Aspects of the House of Refuge

If ones looks closely at the mission statement above, it is clear that admission to the facility is not reliant on the committing of an actual crime, but only on the apparent existence of ‘vicious propensities’ – greed, dishonesty, violence. While the officials leading the House of Refuge clearly sought to remove juvenile petty offenders from the streets and guide them toward more proper pursuits within a closed, stable environment, they also intended to incorporate at-risk youth – less affluent juveniles, neglected youth, etc. – into the institution.  In this sense, the House of Refuge truly toed the line of – or breached, depending on one’s view of the constitution– a child’s civil rights; officials could induct a juvenile without a legal process and for wildly different ‘sentences’ based solely on the discretion of HOR officials.  Juveniles might be held for as little as a week, or as long as the duration of their entire childhood.  In time, as the House of Refuge concept spread to neighboring states like Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, this remarkable new preemptive authority came under question for the authority it granted the HOR. The most notable example of this conflict was the 1838 Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Ex parte Crouse, in which a Pennsylvania father appealed the admission of his daughter to the Pennsylvania House of Refuge, resulting in the extension of the parens patriae doctrine.  Originally, the parens patriae doctrine stated that the state had the responsibility to care for those legally incapable of caring for themselves; through this new extension, the state now had the right and obligation to remove children from poorly supervised households.[iv]

Justifications for the House of Refuge (1850s-1860s)

Aside from legal defenses of their actions, proponents of the HOR system in the 1840s-1850s defended their policy of preemptive induction on primarily two grounds, the stigma of conviction and the hope of the juvenile soul. For the former case, the SRJD argued that the HOR system allowed for the correction of ‘vicious propensities’ (thievery, pride, etc) without burdening its members with the stigma of conviction, which could hamper an individual’s chances of securing labor after their internment.  In effect, the juvenile received the benefits of institutionalization without any of the accompanying stigma – this notion was also present in the birth of a different penal institution around this time, the asylum.  Additionally, it was commonly believed by the SRJD and the officials of other HORs that the souls of young juveniles, boys in particular, were not lost beyond hope – they were ultimately “salvageable” and, because the juveniles’ households had failed in reining in the impulses of their children, it became the state’s responsibility to preserve the soul.  Furthermore, the fact that in most cases, the children inducted had committed either no crime or very petty crime convinced the SRJD that the souls of the youth were not permanently nor completely scarred by crime. (see below)


Figure 4


The end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century ushered in an age of reforms for virtually all areas of human society, including the prison, mental hospital, and reformatories.  However, the perception of the juvenile population as its own distinct component of the broader American population was an entirely new phenomenon in U.S. history.  That being said, the actual process by which the juvenile correction concept became reality was not particularly unique from that of other reformation movements in the early 1800s.  Wealthy, politically powerful gentlemen funded the main efforts and approached the issue from a philosophical and theological perspective.  Most of the leaders of the SRJD were Protestants who had achieved success prior to their inclusion in the SRJD.  In any case, the inception of juvenile ‘incarceration’ resulted in an increased awareness of the juvenile population for decades afterward and into the present day.

-Nicholas Popo

[i] Eddy, Thomas. An Account of the State Prison or Penitentiary House in the City of New York. New York: Isaac Collins and Son, 1801.

[ii] Report on the penitentiary system in the United States, prepared under a resolution of the Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in the City of New-York. (1822). Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/60213199

[iii] Eisenstadt, Peter R.; Moss, Laura-Eve (2005). The Encyclopedia of New York State. Syracuse University Press. p. 1088. Retrieved 6 October 2016

[iv] Elson, Amy L. “Ex Parte Crouse.” – Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society, 2008. Web. 02 Oct. 2016.


Figure 1- Bradford Kinney Peirce “John Griscom” A Half Century with Juvenile Delinquents: Or, The New York House of Refuge (New York, D. Appleton And Company, 1869) 32

Figure 2- Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “First House Of Refuge, 1806.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d37d-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 3 – Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “N.Y. House Of Refuge, 1832.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed October 10, 2016. http://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47e0-d37b-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

Figure 4 – Bradford Kinney Peirce “Ground Layout” A Half Century with Juvenile Delinquents: Or, The New York House of Refuge (New York, D. Appleton And Company, 1869) 318