• U.S.

CRIME: Little Accidents

5 minute read

What happens to the small boy caught and convicted in a Federal Court for delivering an adult ‘legger’s bottles for him?

How fares it with a young runaway nabbed for sneaking across the international boundary in violation of U. S. immigration laws?

What fate awaits the moppet who goes joyriding across State lines in a car that does not belong to him?

What becomes of youngsters convicted under the Mann Act for their interstate sex experiments, of prankish urchins who break open a freight car or filch stamps from a rural post office?

Last week the defunct National (Wickersham) Commission on Law Observance & Enforcement answered these questions in its posthumous Report No. 5 entitled “The Child Offender in the Federal System of Justice.” For President Hoover, famed for his warm heart toward children, the answers made sorrowful reading. The Commission found that the U. S. is far behind the States in dealing with juvenile delinquency. Girls and boys caught in the Federal penal system are not reformed: they are herded with veteran criminals, flogged, thrown into solitary confinement, underfed, tortured in body & mind.

To investigate this field the Commission appointed Dr. Miriam Van Waters. No novice, Dr. Van Waters has long served as referee of the Los Angeles County Juvenile Court, formerly headed the National Conference of Social Work, is now an expert consultant to the Harvard Law School Crime Survey. She spent months prying into the dark corners of the Federal penal system as it applied to children. Her realistic findings comprised 152 pages of the Commission’s 157-page report. What she told the Commission and what the Commission told the President included the following:

Prisoners. During the last six months of last year the Federal Government held in custody 2.066 boys and 177 girls aged 18 or less. Of these 2,243 prisoners, 1,076 were in Federal institutions. The balance were farmed out to local jails and reformatories. At least 13 of these offenders were 12 years old or under.

Offenses. Juvenile convicts under the Prohibition law totaled 990 (44%,) of whom 250 were 16 years old or less. Young violators of immigration laws numbered 492, while 392 were held under the National Motor Vehicle Act (Dyer Act). Declared the report: “The great majority of the juvenile offenders are typical delinquency cases. It is only by accident that they have fallen within the Federal jurisdiction. Joy rides, attempts to elope in the course of which State lines are crossed, may terminate in the Federal Court. Other couples pursuing similar romantic aims but taking a different route may be apprehended by a police officer who sends them home. The type of jurisdiction turns on a territorial position.’

Jails. Child prisoners are lodged in the following Federal institutions, in addition to regular Federal prisons: the Federal Industrial Reformatory at Chillicothe, Ohio; the National Training School for Boys at Washington, D. C.; the National Training School for Girls at Muirkirk, Md.; Federal Industrial Institution for Women at Alderson, W. Va. The U. S. contracts with 24 State institutions to care for young offenders. Declared Dr. Van Waters: “Some jails in the Southern and Southwestern districts are old and unfit. . . . Supervision of inmates is in the hands of trusties. . . . These jails present a situation of filth and misery impossible to convey. . . . The best . . . [reformatory] employs disciplinary measures such as silence at meals, marching, formal routine and flogging; the worst is not to be distinguished from a prison. . . .”

Worst Example. The most severely flayed institution housing juvenile prisoners for the U. S. was the Washington State Reformatory at Monroe. For refractory urchins there are twelve black correction cells with a plank to sleep on and no bedding. Other miscreants are put in a “drill crew” which is kept constantly moving around and around the yard, stopping only twice a day for bread and water. At Monroe, investigators found U. S. prisoners severely punished for “not standing at count . . . speaking in dining room . . . laughing in the cell block . . . making loud popping noises with the mouth.” One child had died in his punishment cell.

St. Peter’s Reply. Superintendent of the Monroe Reformatory is Joseph St. Peter. Last week he retorted to the Wickersham Commission’s indictment: “I’m offering no alibis and no apologies. This reformatory is not a juvenile boarding school. It’s a penal institution.”

Chillicothe. Serious fault Dr. Van Waters found with the Federal Industrial Reformatory at Chillicothe, Ohio, where housing conditions were reported “in poor repair, crowded, unsanitary and not fireproof.” Children were thrown into the guard house for “possessing a 2¢ stamp . . . talking in mess line . . . concealing an apple in bunk . . . kicking a refuse can . . . stealing five eggs.” To the Commission’s charge of poor equipment Warden Albert MacDonald of the reformatory pleaded “I’m guilty, but not to blame.” But vigorously did he deny that his discipline was too severe. Said he: “An aged woman from California [Dr. Van Waters is 43] was sent here to make the investigation. She was of the sob sister brigade. Our discipline is the least rigorous in the world.”

What to Do. With Dr. Van Waters the eleven Wiclcersham Commissioners agreed that the Federal Government was doing nothing to help its young criminals back to social health. Declared Report No. 5: “The Federal Government is not equipped to serve as a guardian to the delinquent child. Nor should it assume this task. Whenever a child has broken a Federal law, his local community has failed in its responsibility. This duty is local, not national. The community has facilities with which to perform it. The nation has not. It is desirable from every point of view that the Federal Government be empowered to withdraw from the prosecution of juveniles where such withdrawals will be in the public interest and to leave the treatment of their cases to the juvenile courts or other welfare agencies of their own states. The Commission recommends the passage of legislation which will have this effect.”

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