Childsaving in Juvenile Institutions: Reinventing the Past or Reinforcing the Present?

Cyndi Banks, Northern Arizona University

Platt and Odem, amongst others, have shown how the 'child savers' of the Progressive period helped to shape the new juvenile justice system, extended legal control over those judged to be 'delinquent' and advocated new forms of sexual regulation with the overall aim of transplanting middle class values into working class delinquents. The child savers of that period envisaged a juvenile justice system that was compassionate but imposed strict discipline, and in which training in the proper values would eradicate criminal tendencies and sexual promiscuity. The child savers of that period have arguably been succeeded in part by those who perform voluntary work in the juvenile system today. The author has been such a volunteer for a number of years, conducting classes in creative writing in juvenile institutions in two states.

While exploring her experience reflexively in the juvenile justice system, the author asks questions such as: are volunteers in juvenile justice reinventing the past as they child save and seek to ameliorate some of the harsher aspects of the modern, managerial and bureaucratic system; what values do they seek to inculcate in delinquent youth and how do they relate in class terms to the mostly working class delinquents and to the institutional staff; might volunteers be complicit in enacting discipline and control within juvenile instituions when only juveniles who have earned the privilege are permitted to attend their classes, and if so, how does this complicity fit with their mission to save? These and other questions are the subject of an analysis of modern child saving in the juvenile justice system that interrogates past modes of saving and explores the tensions of class, race and gender in child saving today.

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Updated 05/20/2006