‘Juvenile Delinquents: Their Condition and Treatment’ by Mary Carpenter

Carpenter M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment W & F G Cash, LondonJuvenile delinquents (1853) is the crowning achievement of Mary Carpenter (1807-77) in thirty years of writing about children; finished just 18 months after Reformatory schools (1851), it is a sustained attack on the hypocrisy of society and of the criminal justice system, a detailed dissection of the objections of her critics and a clear statement of child care principles, most of which are as relevant today as when she wrote.

Very few of her arguments have not been reinforced by research in the past 150 years and it is a mark of both her greatness and her failure that many of her arguments are as relevant today as they were then but that people still refuse to accept them. Indeed, many of those whom she inspired and who ran the reformatories and industrial schools, later to become approved schools, inspired failed to follow her principles – principles that had to be restated by the Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) as they sought to plan a new direction for the care of troubled children. But politicians and many practitioners have been as deaf to the Advisory Council as they were to Mary Carpenter with the same consequences for children and their families in the 21st century as Mary Carpenter described over 150 years ago.

Key Ideas

  • The lower classes are disproportionately targeted by the criminal justice system.
  • Upper class parents who are keen to protect their own children from the stigmatising effects of prison should apply the same standards to those who lack parental protection.
  • Juvenile delinquency has many causes but the prime one is the failure of moral education.
  • Children are often wrongly blamed for the failings of their parents.
  • Girls are at least as capable as boys but suffer more than boys and, though less to become delinquents, are more likely to suffered repeated imprisonment.
  • Parents are responsible for their children’s offending.
  • The state should take parental rights from failing parents.
  • Parents should pay maintenance for state care.
  • The criminal justice system fails children in almost every aspect of its operation.
  • Local authorities fail children by ‘encouraging’ them to commit offences so that the burden of supporting them will fall on the criminal justice system.
  • Examples from abroad show that it is possible to operate a more humane and, crucially, a more effective system for dealing with juvenile delinquents.
  • The key to reforming juvenile delinquents is to provide them with a family environment.
  • Within that environment, they should have plenty of opportunities for constructive activities, play and sports.
  • The less punishment is used, the better.
  • Prison is a soft option compared with genuine reform.
  • No one should be made to suffer for their misdeeds and those who suffer as a natural consequence of them should be supported to deal with that suffering.
  • Vindictiveness should have no part in any dealings with a juvenile delinquent.


In the Preface she sets out the Christian basis for her work “to seek and to save them that are lost”.
In the Introduction she argues that there is an invisible line between respectable people and everyone else, that all sin but that:

“whatever moral delinquency exists in the higher and middle classes, the avenging hand of the law falls excessively on the lower, and a gigantic array of learned judges, recorders, gownsmen, benched magistrates, vigilant police officers, with their numerous subordinates, is compelled to wage a close and interminable warfare with a degraded class” (1853, p. 4).

Upper class parents protect their children from the law when they do offend because they know the stigmatising effect of prison and so do not bring their children before the law; they should apply the same reasoning to those who are “moral orphans”.

She concludes the introduction with a summary of Reformatory Schools (1851): from the first Sunday Schools in the 18th century had evolved the evening Ragged Schools and then the Free Day Schools and the Industrial Schools where children in need might learn a trade. She had compared La colonie agricole at Mettray, France with Parkhurst Prison for young offenders on the Isle of Wight and concluded that what was needed was legally supported reformatories rather than prisons.

In Chapter I “Characteristics and classes”, she sets out and illustrates a disease model of juvenile delinquency arguing that it is not possible to identify who is/has been a delinquent (in much the same way that it is not possible to identify whether a person has or has had many diseases).

She attempts the following classification:

  • daring, hardened offenders
  • members of criminal families
  • casual offenders who become habitual through lack of parental oversight
  • those driven by poverty into offending
  • those who pilfer things to resell
  • ‘travellers’

However, she argues that, as most juvenile delinquents are not from poor families, the problem is not poverty but moral education.

In Chapter II “A single captive”, she illustrates through individual case histories how society condemns children for the sins of their parents without holding the parents responsible.

In Chapter III “The girls”, she discusses the role of women in society and notes that, while there are fewer female juvenile offenders, they tend to be in a worse situation than the boys, citing Johann Wichern, the founder of the Rauhe Haus near Hamburg, who had found that the girls were more difficult to manage than the boys.

She suggests that girls suffer because they are less likely to leave home to escape from poor parenting than boys are and dismisses the view that girls are less intelligent than boys, saying it is not true when you compare both “under equally favourable circumstances” (1853, p. 90). She had found that girls can be precocious and they “exhibited even greater quickness and power than [boys] in the acquisition of classical languages, and other branches of knowledge requiring clearness of reasoning and social exercise of judgement” (1853, p. 90) from which she argues that special efforts are needed to provide for the needs of lower class girls.

She notes that girls often get a series of short sentences and that women are more likely to have been in prison over five times than men and concludes by saying that you cannot get rid of bad habits without offering “more agreeable ones” (1853, p. 116).

In Chapter IV “The parents”, she focuses on parents who ignorantly or accidentally contribute to a child’s delinquency. She argues that:

  • juvenile delinquency is caused by:

– the low moral condition of parents

– poverty in a small number of cases;

  • parents should be responsible for their children’s offending;
  • society should take away parental rights from failing parents;
  • parents should pay maintenance for state care.

In Chapter V “Present treatment”, she asks what we would think of an infirmary

“in which … [when] treatment was applied to the patient for a certain time fixed before his entering, by some arbitrary rule, quite irrespective of the effect it had on him, or his actual condition; and in which, moreover, when the patients returned again and again – the disease evidently having gained a stronger hold on them after each course of treatment – the nurses, and even the physicians, all acknowledging that they anticipated as much when the patients were first brought under their care, and that those who submitted most submissively to the discipline, usually appeared the most untouched by it, – the same treatment was persevered in?” (1853, p. 163).

She describes Liverpool prison school and notes that education at Wakefield Prison and Perth Prison had not affected re-conviction rates.

She cites examples of middle class victims declining to prosecute middle class offenders because they know that prosecutions make children worse and examples of the dilemmas magistrates often encounter. She cites examples of poor law authorities declining to help children so that they are imprisoned and the cost of their care falls elsewhere, concluding that local authorities are “‘accomplices before the fact’ in the crimes of children” (1853, p. 189) though she does concede that the current circumstances of a workhouse expose children to bad influences.

She notes that the ‘separate system’ (a system of isolating prisoners to reflect on their conduct pioneered at Pentonville Prison) is not used for children; however, Parkhurst has high walls, compulsory work, armed officers and a brutal regime to control the young people sent there.

In Chapter VI “American experience”, she outlines the principles that have underpinned developments in North America:

  • separate reformatory asylums,
  • enlightened Christian benevolence,
  • voluntary effort.

She notes that the provision of schools in Boston, New York and elsewhere has not reduced delinquency; instead initiatives supported by state funds have been developed to meet the needs of juvenile offenders. She notes that the Agricultural Reform School at Westborough, Boston had had only four escapes in five years whereas Parkhurst had had 30 in one year. However, when the Governor-General of Canada petitioned for similar provision in Canada in 1848, personal liberty arguments had been used to oppose such developments there and in the UK.

In Chapter VII “Continental experience”, she summarises developments in continental Europe. In France twelve new reformatory colonies based on the example of Mettray had been set up; the French penal code allowed children under 16 to be acquitted on grounds that they acted sans discernement and committed to the care of their parents or a house of correction and provided different penalties from adults for children convicted avec discernement. The experience of Mettray had led to changes in French prisons and an 1849 report had recommended, among other things, the separation of juvenile from adult offenders.

The separate development of the Wurtemburg Reformatory School at Stuttgart in 1820 had led to the establishment of nineteen such schools by 1843 and the ideas had extended to Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Russia. Most of these initiatives received government aid, and most used the family system as at the Rauhe Haus. Similar developments had taken place in Flanders and in Switzerland.

In Chapter VIII “Individual experience”, she quotes extensively from Wichern’s diary of 1832 which illustrates a number of issues relating to discipline and staff changes, noting that Wichern had dropped the original name “House of Rescue” in favour of Rauhe Haus to indicate to children that this was a fresh start and the past was forgotten.

At the Rauhe Haus children come with the consent of their parents; they live in groups of twelve with the girls and boys separate in the care of an unpaid ‘brother’ who is being trained to take the ideas elsewhere; there had only been five failures out of 207 children.

She concludes with an extract from the diary of London Ragged School noting the stress on useful occupation and moral leadership.

In Chapter IX “Principles of Treatment”, she argues that juvenile delinquency arises because a child’s development has been unbalanced and that, to give it the all-round, balanced character the child needs, “he must, in short, be placed in a family” (1853, p. 299) .

She further argues that the work of those “who propose to stand in the parental relationship … is a far higher one that that of the physician” (1853, p. 301) and that “Until the child’s will is enlisted in the work of reformation, there can be no real progress in it” (1853, p. 303).

She argues that labour, agricultural skills for boys and domestic for girls but with the option to learn a trade, should be a key feature of a home because it prepares a child for earning his keep as well as developing him physically, socially, mentally and spiritually and also because young minds are incapable of abstract reasoning. However, she emphasises that “labour … must be voluntary” (1853, p. 309). She argues that very few who are given the choice do not want to work.

She also says that staff should arrange play and join children in sports.

She says that the less punishment is employed the better, quoting extensively from Anselm on the effects of punishment; instead staff need to awaken the reciprocity of love. She also stresses the importance of children having their own property.

She argues that the maximum age for admission to the reformatories she envisages should be 16 but is less clear about length of stay as children tend to stay four to five years at the Rauhe Haus but normally less than two years in America. However, she believes that co-education will work, particularly among children who are under twelve on admission.

In Chapter X “Application of principles”, she recapitulates the arguments in the book bemoaning the lack of action in the face of numerous earlier reports and conferences before turning to a minute dissection of the objections to her proposals.

1. It will be unfair to honest parents.

That is like saying that, when there is a cholera epidemic, you should not take any measures to prevent the spread of cholera among poor families. What is the point of trying to educate your own children while doing nothing about the bad examples next door?
Anyway, however much you do for children from a poor home, you can never compensate them for not having had a good home; children from good homes will always have advantages over those from poor homes.

2. It will reward people for bad behaviour.

The present system does that because parents are relieved of supporting their children while they are in prison but they will have to contribute to their upkeep if they are in a reformatory. Young people will not regard a reformatory as preferable to prison.

3. Good parents will be caught up in the system.

The courts have always been happy to give parents another chance anyway or to listen to their views; this is unlikely to change.

4. A reformatory does not provide any correction of bad behaviour.

A reformatory corrects by its nature; it is punishment that does not correct.

If by correction you mean vindictiveness, then vindictiveness is always incompatible with real reformation.

5. Suffering must be a consequence of breaking God’s laws.

No; we may support someone through the suffering they experience but all punishment must arise as a natural consequence of our actions and in the context of a loving relationship.

Vindictiveness is out; punishment must only come as the natural working out of God’s laws. God does not want anyone to be punished but to turn from their wickedness and to live.

She also argues that a community must consume its own smoke and concludes by setting out the principles that underpin her proposals:

  • Parents are responsible for their children and should be punished for their failures.
  • Society is responsible where a child has no parents or the parent has failed in their responsibilities.
  • Parents must pay maintenance whether or not they have care of the child.
  • When society cares for a child, it must prepare that child to become a useful member of society on earth and in heaven.
  • Society may entrust that responsibility to anyone who can discharge that duty satisfactorily.
  • The last is best done through voluntary and individual effort which as far as possible offers a family environment.

She also sets out the suggested clauses for an Act.

As an Appendix she reproduces chapters from a contemporary psychological text.


With the exception of her relatively low expectations for the education of lower class children, her views that parents should be punished and deprived of responsibility for caring for their children for failing to carry out their responsibilities and, for some people, her appeal to religious arguments to support her case, there is little in this book that would not appear relevant to a modern reader. Indeed, if you take out her references to punishing parents and to maintenance, everything else in the principles she sets out in the final chapter is explicitly or implicitly in the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

On the basis of her research, she reaches conclusions which it took a century of behavioural scientists to reach using far more sophisticated research tools than she had available to her. Her error in assuming that parents should be excluded from the care of their children once they had been shown to have failed was widely shared and was not to be corrected until the 20th century. Even today, when open adoption is possible, closed adoption, in which natural parents are excluded from any part of a child’s life, is still part of government policy.

Indeed, it is interesting to see how much governments have cherry-picked her ideas, introducing measures to take parental responsibilities away from parents and to enforce maintenance but ignoring her strictures on the inappropriateness of punishment and vindictiveness in dealing with juvenile delinquency.

Because she has already covered it in Reformatory schools, she does not repeat her arguments about punishment, and corporal punishment in particular, namely that there should be
“no punishments of a degrading or vengeful nature … Nor less injurious is the practice of employing corporal punishment … in very few cases is it otherwise than most injurious, especially among children who are already but too well accustomed to harshness and severity, and that there are very few masters who could safely be trusted with such a power, or whose influence for good would not be seriously injured by it” (1851, pp. 87-88).

Unfortunately, her arguments were not accepted by many of those who were to run the reformatories she inspired and are still not accepted by the UK government, which has refused to outlaw corporal punishment in England and Wales.

Her argument for a family approach to care has engendered much debate and been subject to many interpretations (Wolins, 1973) but her insistence on voluntary labour, play and sports as essential aspects of a residential establishment found twentieth century echoes in both research (Wolins, 1969) and practice (Trieschman et al., 1969; O’Neill, 1981).

In spite of its occasional failings Juvenile delinquents towers above all other books on this subject in its breadth and its humanity; the next book to attempt a similar scope 115 years later was Clegg and Megson (1968) though perhaps her real successor is Geoffrey Blumenthal (1985) who, to the narrow field of secure units, brings a similarly incisive, multi-layered analysis and a matching humanity.

Advisory Council in Child Care (1970) Care and treatment in a planned environment: a report on the community home project Her Majesty’s Stationery Office, London

Blumenthal G J (1985) The development of secure units in child care Gower, Aldershot

Carpenter M (1851) Reformatory schools for the children of the perishing and dangerous classes and for juvenile delinquents Charles Gilpin, London

Carpenter M (1853) Juvenile delinquents, their condition and treatment W & F G Cash, London

Clegg A B and Megson B E (1968) Children in distress. Penguin, Harmondsworth

O’Neill T (1981) A place called Hope: caring for children in distress Blackwell, Oxford

Trieschman A, Whittaker J and Brendtro L (1969) The other 23 hours: child care work with emotionally disturbed children in a therapeutic milieu Aldine, Chicago

Wolins M (1969) Group care: friend or foe? Social work, 14(1):35-53. Reprinted in Martin Wolins (Ed.) (1974) Successful group care Aldine, Chicago

Wolins M (1973) Some theoretical observations on group care. In Pappenfort D M, Kilpatrick D M and Roberts R W (Eds) Child caring: social policy and the institution Aldine, Chicago

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