Founding the Connecticut Delinquency Court, 1903-1941

JurisdictionConnecticut,United States
Publication year2021
CitationVol. 85 Pg. 301
Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 85.


Connecticut Bar Journal
Volume 85, No. 4, Pg. 301
December 2011


By Henry S. Cohn(fn*) and Gordon S. Bates(fn**)

On January 1, 2010, jurisdiction for delinquency cases in the Superior Court for Juvenile Matters expanded beyond age sixteen, ending at a youth's seventeenth birthday; on July 1, 2012 that jurisdiction will expand again to the youth's eighteenth birthday.(fn1) This was the first time in at least ninety years that the jurisdiction of the juvenile delinquency court has expanded.(fn2) This change in the law engendered much controversy (mostly over costs and staffing).(fn3) This historic change thus presents an opportune time to review the founding of the Connecticut juvenile court and also to review the important role in its creation played by the Connecticut Prison Association.(fn4)


The earliest separate courts for juveniles were established in Chicago and Denver after 1899.(fn6) This separate juvenile court concept quickly spread to Connecticut. The Hartford Courant in the first decade of the 20th century carried several articles on the wisdom of establishing juvenile courts for delinquents. Judge Willis Brown from Salt Lake City visited the Hartford YMCA in 1909, explaining how his court gave juveniles a chance to live a better life.(fn7) Judge Ben B. Lindsey, founder of the Denver Juvenile Court, spoke in April 1909 at the Unity Club in Hartford.(fn8)

The Denver Juvenile Court brought about the "regeneration of the whole system of dealing with juvenile offenders in the state of Colorado."(fn9) Lindsey declared that adult prisons were "schools of crime."(fn10) A better approach was not to charge a juvenile with a "crime," but to give him help and education. In protecting the child, the state was also protecting itself. The Biblical lesson of forbidding theft was taught, but with sympathy, kindness, and understanding. The court used probation officers to investigate facts and assist the children. Lindsey set forth a series of related stories drawn from his court, including one about "Mickey," a bright youngster from the slums who had been "turned around."(fn11)

The Connecticut legislature over the years from 1903 to 1941 put the juvenile court into effect, as well as a juvenile probation system.(fn12) A major issue for establishment of a statewide juvenile court in Connecticut was that offenders, when arrested, were processed in their home town. Some larger cities had police courts, but most towns merely had a justice of the peace enforcing criminal law. It was costly for the state to establish a regional or statewide juvenile justice system.(fn13)

The first statute, passed in 1903, merely states that:

Whenever any minor shall have been arrested, the clerk of the [superior, common pleas, district, police, city, or borough or town] court before which said minor is brought shall, if practicable, notify said probation officer in advance, and said court may commit said minor to the care and custody of said probation officer, both before and after trial, and the trial of such minor shall, whenever practicable, be held in chambers.(fn14)

By 1905, the commitment to the probation officer applied before trial and the phrase "trials in chambers" was deleted.(fn15) The probation officers in each court were under the control of the Connecticut Prison Association.(fn16)

The legislature took more specific action in 1917 by Chapter 308.(fn17) The terminal age for a juvenile was set at eighteen and the first prosecution was to be heard in chambers "unless the offense charged is one that shall be punishable by imprisonment in the state prison or by the death penalty."(fn18) In a subsequent prosecution, the court could decide on whether the juvenile offense might be tried in chambers.(fn19)

There was no separate juvenile court, but the already-established courts in each town were to hold "separate dockets" for juveniles, not open to the public on the first offense, unless the first offense was an aggravated one.(fn20) Subsequent offenses were to be public if the court deemed it advisable. Finally the 1917 legislation provided that "cities having a population of twenty thousand or more may, by ordinance or by-laws, provide for juvenile courts to be conducted by a judge of the police or city court of such municipality . . ."(fn21) The legislature, again with a fiscal eye, provided that the ordinance could demand nothing further than that the town must set up a specific existing courtroom for the proceedings.

Those who wanted a truly separate juvenile court, such as the Connecticut Child Welfare Association, established in 1918,(fn22) and the Connecticut Prison Association, achieved better success in 1921, by Chapter 336.(fn23) There was to be a separate system of juvenile courts within each existing city, police, borough and town courts, and any town without such courts through the justice of peace or probate court.(fn24)

The 1921 legislation also provided that this court was "wholly separate" from all other courts with its records closed to the public.(fn25) The juvenile court had original jurisdiction for children under 16, but the prosecutor could transfer to juvenile court, any child's case who was age 16 to 18.(fn26) Hearings were to exclude those persons not necessary for adjudication, and were to take place in a separate room from that used for the conduct of adult criminal business.(fn27) The judges were, however, the same as those in the local criminal court.(fn28)

The juvenile probation officer was to investigate and report to the court.(fn29) Finally "[n]o child shall be prosecuted for an offense before a juvenile court, nor shall the adjudication of such court that a child is delinquent in any case be deemed a conviction of crime."(fn30)

The towns under this legislation were obliged to seek new space for juvenile hearings. The city of Hartford moved the juvenile court out of the police court location to a building on Washington Street shared by the Connecticut Humane Society, an animal rights group.(fn31)

The 1921 Act was held constitutional in Cinque v. Boyd.(fn32) There a fourteen-year-old was found a delinquent in the City Court of New Haven, sitting as the juvenile court, and was sent to the Connecticut School for Boys in Meriden. He had participated in robbery of an intoxicated man of $2.50. His father's habeas corpus challenged the constitutionality of the 1921 Act on the following grounds: (1) Cinque was improperly denied bail; (2) Cinque was denied the sixth amendment right to confront witnesses and could not cross-examine; (3) The criminal rules of evidence were not followed at Cinque's hearing; (4) Cinque was denied a jury trial; (5) Cinque was confined at a penal institution without being convicted; (6) "The statutes provide for an unreasonable and unjust discrimination, since juvenile courts are only established in certain localities and not others"; and (7) The term "delinquent" was too vague.(fn33)

The Supreme Court, in an unanimous opinion written by Associate Justice John E. Keeler, upheld the constitutionality of the 1921 Act. From an early date, safeguarding children was a goal of the legislature. The purpose of the 1921 legislation was not to create a court to prosecute children, but to establish a court to make a "civil inquiry" of whether direct state care was needed to improve an adolescent's life.(fn34) Thus the Act was not unconstitutional for failing to provide Bill of Rights safeguards.(fn35) Nor was the allegation of robbery enough to make this a criminal proceeding; rather the court was engaged in an "examination."(fn36)

The Act was not unconstitutional because one city had a juvenile court that was part of the regular criminal court while a rural court might be conducted by a justice of the peace. The legislature was not required to establish a juvenile court in any particular manner.(fn37) Nor were the provisions of the 1921 Act "vague."(fn38) The Act was sufficiently definite. Significantly, the right to bail was not discussed in the 1921 Act; only detention was allowed, if called for. Under these circumstances, the court held that the child, Cinque was allowed to be free while the charges were pending.(fn39)

The next step for the reformers was to try for a statewide, uniform court. In 1935, the General Assembly created two experimental courts, one in the urban area of Fairfield county, and the other in the rural area of Windham county.(fn40) In these two counties, all pending juvenile cases were transferred from the towns in the jurisdictions to the county juvenile court. Frederick W. Huxford of Stamford was appointed the Fairfield judge with a salary of $5,000, and Edward L. Dennis of Scotland was appointed judge of the Windham court with a salary of $3,000.(fn41) Their terms were for four years; they were nominated by the governor and approved by the General Assembly.(fn42)

In the terms of the legislature in 1937 and 1939, the unified court bills failed.(fn43) The reformers, in a losing effort, raised a scathing 1931 report from the Bureau of Child Welfare.(fn44) In 109 towns there were no town courts, only justices of the peace. This meant that justices of the peace frequently had juvenile cases. Such records as existed showed more commitments to the girls' Long Lane Farm and the School for Boys in Meriden were ordered from the justice courts than from the town courts. The rural probation officers were part-time and ill-paid. They were not fully qualified and included "[a]n undertaker, a harness maker, a dietician, a florist, two printers, three editors, a reporter, a YMCA secretary, two town treasurers, two foremen, two dentists, an engineer, two charity commissioners, a...

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