"Not of full age": Children and the criminal law in Connecticut, 1635--1855

Date of Completion

January 2002


History, United States|Law




This dissertation analyzes the creation of and changes in specific legal rights and protections provided under the criminal law for children in Connecticut from 1635 to 1855. Changes in legal status and procedures as they affected children reflected a shift to the belief that children were inherently different from adults, requiring unique treatment by the courts when they committed crimes. Perhaps most important was the fact that Connecticut's laws created a number of distinctions in categories of childhood, adding to the complexity of trying and sentencing children. Furthermore, by the nineteenth century, new views of children as patients to be reformed eventually led to discretionary sentences for children under sixteen, and ultimately to the opening of the State Reform School for Boys in 1854. ^ The first three chapters study changes in legal attitudes and procedures in three major areas: crimes against property, crimes against persons, and crimes against public order. One result of the changes was that adults came to view children as less capable of understanding the consequences of their actions. The most revolutionary transformation was the way in which criminal procedures developed to provide legal assistance to children in court. This analysis traces the shift from informal notice to parents or guardians to the formal appointment of a guardian ad litem or formal legal counsel to protect the rights of the child. ^ In chapters four and five the dissertation analyzes the ways in which Connecticut developed the concept that children required specific laws to protect them from physical and sexual abuse. Finally, chapter six analyzes the intersection between the increasing stress on the importance of education and nurture for children and the rise of reform attitudes in the nineteenth century. These reform concepts led to the belief that children who broke the law were not criminals to be punished, but patients to be treated and returned to society as contributing members of the community. Evidence from the State Reform School for Boys provides support for the conclusion that adults now viewed children as distinct from adults and worthy of a second chance if they broke the law. ^