Children have always committed crimes. Farmers whose apples had been taken may have complained to the children’s parents. The local constable might give them a severe telling off or a clip on the ear. Only the most difficult and persistent child criminals found themselves in court. When they did, they were punished like adults. Children were put in prisons, transported and even hanged. In 1880 there were 6,500 children under 16 in adult prisons, of whom 900 were under 12. People’s awareness of juvenile crimes was raised by the publication of Oliver Twist in 1837. Dickens shocked people with his description of the Artful Dodger and Fagin’s trained gang of pickpockets. His story may have been fiction but it was successful in getting people thinking about child crime and how to deal with it. There was a growing understanding that children were not just miniature adults but developing people who were influenced by their environment. Reformers like Mary Carpenter began to ask important questions:
- How and when does a child know what is right and wrong?
- What should be done about the fact that criminals and deprived backgrounds produced more child criminals?
- Children were likely to become criminals by sending them to an adult prison. What alternatives should there be?
The result was the gradual development of the juvenile justice system. The need to separate young offenders from the corrupting influence of hardened criminals had been urged for centuries. In 1838 a positive, but short-lived, step was taken of separating juvenile offenders when the former military prison on the Isle of Wight at Parkhurst was opened with a reformatory regime for convicts under eighteen prior to their transportation.
- In 1853 a Select Committee on Criminal and Destitute Children recommended a degree of state assistance for reformatory schools. The Youthful Offenders Act 1854 provided for persons under sixteen years to be sent to such schools for from two to five years following two weeks in a prison (perhaps as a shock). These reform schools were very tough but the clear intention was to separate the child from his or her bad home environment.
- In 1857 legislation sanctioned the sending to industrial schools of children between the ages of seven and fourteen who had been convicted of vagrancy. The perceived decline in juvenile crime after 1860 was often attributed to the reformatories and industrial schools by reformers.
- In 1902 an experimental school to try to reform repeating offenders aged 15-21 was started at Borstal in Kent. It was run like a public school, with lots of sport and residential houses. The plan for more such schools, called Borstals, was extended in 1908 and for a time they were very successful.
- The 1908 Children’s Act was an important move in the separate treatment of children. It stopped children under 14 being sent to prisons and created special Juvenile courts to hear cases. After 1908 a child under seven was not held liable for his actions. This was raised to eight in 1933 and ten in 1963. Whether it should remain at 10 is now a matter of some debate.
- In 1932 reformatory schools were replaced by Approved Schools for offenders under 15. A total of 86 boys’ schools and 35 girls’ schools were set up.
 It is unlikely that this was the only cause of decline and taking the country as a whole there was no common sentencing policy with regard to juveniles. The majority of convicted juveniles continued to be sent to ordinary gaols.