I Like Bad Boys


I HAVE in mind a wayward lad, Frankie Mack (that’s not his real name), whose case is typical of those that come before the Boys’ Court of Chicago. Frankie’s father killed Frankie’s mother and a strange man in her arms. The police killed the father when he tried to escape. The son, then ten years old, was put in the care of an aunt, who really took no care.

That was a pathetic setup for any American boy. Frankie went wrong. He chummed around with a lad whose mother one day asked Frankie to give her a hand with the laundry. Frankie saw her deposit a quarter in the coin box which operated the washing machine. After he had examined the coin box the boy had a clever idea. He was brought to the Court some time later because he had opened the coin boxes in numerous basements on the South Side and had pocketed the money. He had been making over one hundred dollars a month.

Burglary is a serious offense in Illinois — the sentence is one year to life. And Frankie was a burglar. It was at this point that the philosophy of the Boys’ Court achieved what we hope will be a victory. Many a judge would have given Frankie some years of incarceration. I gave him thirty days in the county jail, and that only because I needed some time to work out a solution of his problem. Several months or years would have embittered the lad toward society and made him, with his clever brain, a valuable asset to crime.

Frankie was too smart for his own good. That was one of the reasons why I closed four walls around that smartness before turning him out. Picturing himself as some kind of resurrected Robin Hood, this lad had helped the poor at the expense of the rich — ‘ poor ‘ meaning average boys with average appetites, ‘help’ meaning hot dogs, hamburgers, and such, and ‘rich’ meaning taxpayers. But while the coin-box Robin Hood bit his fingernails in jail I had our Social Service Department check up on his past life and his future possibilities.

‘Frankie,’ I asked, before committing him to the county jail, ‘isn’t there some Way you could help make good to these people for the loss you’ve caused them?’

‘How about me showing them how to make their coin boxes burglarproof?’ he answered.

When Frankie’s thirty days were up he had finished two sketches for me, covering two types of washing machine. In jail, at the age of seventeen, he had drafted designs covering the construction of burglarproof coin boxes which the manufacturers had not previously conceived.

We procured a job for Frankie and advanced two weeks’ room and board for him at the Y.M.C.A. hotel. The dean of boys at one of our technical high schools had offered to assist in the training of a lad with mechanical ability, so for some time Frankie saw the dean twice a week and improved steadily. Of course, I still keep my fingers crossed for the boy; one can never tell what the ultimate end will be. The Boys’ Court helped Frankie, but as long as Frankie tinkers in the good new world he is also helping the Boys’ Court.

Until 1937, when the Adolescents’ Court of Brooklyn was organized, the Chicago Boys’ Court was the only one of its kind in the world. It is not a juvenile court. The Juvenile Court of Cook County, the first juvenile court in America, was created in 1899, and deals primarily with boys under seventeen and girls under eighteen. So until 1914, when the Boys’ Court came into being, the offender between seventeen and twenty-one had to stand trial like an adult.

The civil side of our common law distinguishes between individuals over and under twenty-one: over that age an individual can be bound by any contract he enters, while under that age he is responsible only for contracts involving the necessities of life; again, under that age he cannot vote. There are other respects where this difference obtains. It hardly seems fair, therefore, to try a person under twenty-one on a criminal charge in the same court as a person over that age. The Boys’ Court throws sunlight on the shadow ages.

The Chicago Municipal Court, of which the Boys’ Court is a branch, has limited jurisdiction in criminal matters. In felony cases its judges sit as examining magistrates and listen to evidence produced by the state. If the court finds what is known as ‘probable cause,’ the judges bind the defendant to the Grand Jury. If the defendant is indicted by the Grand Jury, he then stands trial in the Criminal Court.

In cases of misdemeanors, however, the Municipal Court judges have complete jurisdiction, and it is their duty to enter final disposition. This absolute power has brought the new philosophy into the Boys’ Court—the philosophy which Frankie tasted. It is my philosophy.

I feel that judges are too often only judges. They are just, as the mythical Nemesis was just, but such justice is often a bit too harsh and unwise. Some judges who have preceded me have maintained that every convicted offender should feel the unpleasant tang of prisons. They have argued that even a youngster who has committed his first offense will come out a wiser individual if he has been confined. But in my opinion the good new world cannot be arrived at in that way. With all respect to those whose ideas differ from mine, I feel that the company of hardened criminals in prison will hurt, rather than benefit, the first offender.

A boy steals. His motive may be good or bad, but he is a thief. The charge against him reads ‘petit larceny’ and the evidence justifies a finding of guilty. It is the boy’s first offense and he stands before me. Somebody has to play Solomon, so I give the lad another chance. If he steals again, however, I am subject to public criticism; I am called too lenient. But it is worth taking the chance. Any judge can send a boy to the House of Correction and save society from a thief. In that way I may save society, but not the thief. My philosophy says that I should save the thief if I am ultimately to save society.


The door to the boy’s new world is probation. Probation allows a convicted defendant to serve his term outside the bars and thereby prove he has learned his lesson. Frankie, although behind bars, was handled with probation technique: he was stimulated to do good. Stimulated to do good — that excuse alone should save probation from the slaughter which so many newspapers and social agencies advocate.

I believe strongly in probation, even in parole. Current criticism heaped on these two methods of handling criminals has befogged the real issue. This criticism attacks the institutions, whereas the attacks should be directed against their faulty and imperfect administration.

Suppose I put on probation the boy who is found guilty of stealing. Can I then sigh and settle back with satisfaction because the philosophy of the Boys’ Court has achieved another triumph and shown a good new world to the person on probation? Certainly not.

I assume that a boy on probation wants to earn a living honestly. He looks for a job. The fact that he is on probation means that he has a criminal record. The application blank asks: ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ The applicant can lie, but he will always be haunted by the fact that the employment office can easily learn the truth. Anyway, lying is hardly a good beginning on a clean page. So the Boys’ Court has provided a safety belt for the offender on probation. We have devised a system of extralegal supervision which enables the Court to grant a special form of probation without giving the convicted individual a criminal record.

But the boy who has been convicted pays for that safety belt by writing a severe sentence upon himself to be used in case he commits another crime. He stands before me. Before I submit to probation I sentence him to the House of Correction and impose a fine for damages. I watch the reaction. It comes, either from the defendant or from his parents. Pleadings for another chance are dinned into my ears.

‘How do I know you won’t do it again?’ I ask the defendant.

‘If I do, Judge, you can send me up for life.’

Invariably the defendant says ‘for life.’ I let him know he has sentenced himself for any future crime he may commit. I have witnesses — a courtroom full; and I shall keep his self-prescribed sentence on file.

Then I open the door for him: he is on probation — this modified probation, which we call ‘supervision.’ The Court imposes certain restrictions, prohibiting the defendant from being out after dark, from chumming with those who steered him into crime, from driving a car, and from entering taverns and pool-rooms. In each case I turn the defendant over to a representative of the particular group to which he belongs. There are four such groups in Chicago, each with a representative attending Court daily, and each working zealously with the philosophy of the Boys’ Court. These groups are the Holy Name Society, the Chicago Church Federation, the Jewish Social Service Bureau, and the Colored Big Brothers Association. In each case the defendant has a safety belt.

Of all the boys to whom I give a second chance, 72 per cent do not repeat their crimes; and of the 28 per cent who do, many come back on insignificant charges such as might have been pinned on you or me — shooting dice on the street, sneaking into side entrances of theatres, creating disturbances in school, or any of a number of things which do not prevent a person from becoming a good citizen.

Four years ago, when I was assigned to preside over the Boys’ Court, my conscience protested. Even in my dreams I saw processions of boys whose faces stared at me in misery. I was their master — I could break them or give them a new lease on society. I could break them — yet I could not. I had a conscience — a moral law.

I believe in knowing the defendant’s home problems. ‘Why,’ not ‘how,’ he goes wrong interests me. He is human, of flesh and blood, like the judge. He has my instincts, reflexes, emotions. He came into the world, as I did, without having anything to say about it. Something made him go wrong. I want to steer him away from that something, by finding out and then removing those factors which were responsible for his difficulty. I cannot just show him where his past was wrong and then substitute no better world. That would be incarceration.


I believe I have found the motivating forces behind most juvenile and adolescent crimes. Toy pistols, improper literature, shady movies, basement or cellar clubs, drugs, alcohol, ‘he-man’ radio thrillers and comics, automobiles, and nagging or uninterested parents — these are the roots of the trouble. All flourish in one soil — inadequate homes.

A parent does not use good judgment if he allows his child to play with toy guns. The parent may argue that he himself played with a gun when he was a youngster and did not become a criminal. But now, more than ever before, we live in an age when guns suggest bandits, G-men, or policemen, and when a youngster’s playmate, especially in a large city, may be from an environment a decent child’s parents know nothing about. There are more playmates today than there once were, and less knowledge of the habits of the playmates.

A father coming home from work may think he has a bright child if the youngster says, ‘Stick ‘em up or I’ll shoot!’ instead of ‘Hello, Daddy.’ The child may be bright, but, once he has learned to point a toy gun and pull the trigger, the next step is to look for the real thing. Buy him a camera instead, and let him do his aiming and shooting with that. There are so many better toys than guns or G-man automobiles. Deadly weapons are called ‘G-man’ equipment to give them a legitimate character, but to the child they mean violence. He is not interested in commercial distinctions between gangsters and police.

I have been somewhat successful in getting parent-teacher groups and even the press actively interested in a campaign to eliminate the manufacture and sale of destructive toys and games. One publisher, however, wrote me a long letter branding my efforts as ‘echoing Prohibition-day psychology.’ He added that when he was a child his parents objected to toy guns, so he bought a real rifle, practised with it, and became an expert marksman, and that this ability stood him in good stead in the World War when he was training American doughboys to fight in defense of this country’s ideals.

I did not answer that letter, but I could have replied that I knew one man who as a child never played with guns. Yet, when this country called him to service, he earned a badge as an expert marksman after only two weeks of training on the rifle range. It is not necessary to begin in childhood to teach youngsters how to defend a country. The Battle of Waterloo may have been won on the fields of Eton, but the Etonians developed their bodies through sports and their minds through studies — not through popping guns at each other.

Improper literature has a powerful lure. I remember two boys who were arrested in a railway station, one for carrying a loaded revolver. When brought before me the lads told me how they had been inspired by a cheap adventure magazine to try to see the world as the heroes in a story had seen it. The fictional characters had gone from place to place without money, working their way as they went along, and had come back to their homes rich in thrills and experiences. The defendants thought they had discovered a short cut; why work? They told me that they had taken the gun in order to rob one person in each town and then move on. I kept these boys under court supervision for a time and then discharged them. During the period of supervision they were visited periodically by one of our staff and were required to report regularly to their supervisors. Although I have not heard from them since, I like to think we helped them. At least until we do hear from them we’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Another boy, who suffered from a speech handicap, had run away from home after stealing one hundred and sixty dollars from his father. He wanted to show the world that he could take care of himself. But his funds dwindled, and he adopted a brilliant scheme from a detective magazine. He had not seen his mother for several weeks, so he telephoned her to meet him on the steps of a certain school. Anxious to see her runaway son, the mother complied. But the message was a ruse: while the mother was waiting for him in front of the school, the son went home, sneaked into the basement, and stole his father’s service revolver. (The father was a policeman.)

When this unfortunate lad stood before me I asked him what he intended to do with the gun.

‘Hold up people to get more money,’ was the reply.

He denied that he intended to shoot if he found himself in a cornered postion.

‘But why did you have bullets in the gun?’ I pursued.

‘So that people would take me seriously.’

Such ideas can come to the youngster from a detective magazine. One of the officers told me that the police had found no less than thirty detective and mystery magazines strewn around the room in which the boy had exiled himself.


Marijuana (‘muggles’ or ‘reefers’ to the street boys) is a popular demoralizing agent to young people today. Originally this drug was smoked by Mexicans, Spaniards, and more recently by Negroes; but today even children of highschool age have access to it. Because there is doubt as to whether or not it is habit-forming, the Federal Government has done little about it. Marijuana is a weed which can be grown in flowerpots and back yards. When smoked in the cigarette form in which it is most common, it has a bacchanalian effect: the user succumbs to wild desires, and so aroused becomes his imagination that he commits crimes with the ecstasy of a sadist.

Alcoholic liquor, since it is more easily obtainable than marijuana, is responsible for 20 to 30 per cent of all the cases which come into the Boys’ Court. Under its influence boys will commit almost any crime, and then they will steal in order to buy more liquor. There are, of course, laws against selling liquor to minors, but they are difficult to enforce. Many can and do lie about their age. Tavern keepers never have time to ask for birth certificates.

As for the radio, movie, and comic strip, these three appeal to youth mainly through their sensational angles. A boy arrested for playing a ‘peeping Tom’ confessed to me that he had been inspired to unhealthy snooping by such movies as Love and Kisses and Beware of Ladies. Such radio programs as The Lone Ranger, Gang Busters, Warden Lawes, and Lights Out might have been harmless in the old days of earphones, when only adults had enough patience to sit glued to a spot and follow a dramatization through; but today similar programs are blared out so that even a fidgety tenyear-old can follow the story sequences. And the evil feature is that the phases which portray the temporary glories of crime stand out in the minds of juveniles. The lesson that ‘crime doesn’t pay’ is wasted on those for whom it is intended. All the youngsters get out of these programs is the Bang! Bang! Bang! and the glory and thrill and excitement. Unless these juveniles have homes which emphasize the rich meat in the nonsensational offerings of radio, we shall continue to have problems of delinquency. The same can be said of the comic strip: as long as parents continue to let their youngsters read about Dick Tracy and Secret Agent Number Nine, Smiling Jack, and the like, just so long will parents and newspapers continue to instill into children a distorted and depraved conception of the meaning of real life and living.

A junked automobile is a wheeled Mephistopheles. There are no adequate legal restrictions on the sale of cars, so a group of boys can pool their meagre savings and purchase a vehicle. This is often done during summer to fill in months of idleness. The boy who puts up the most money keeps the car at night. He parks the automobile a block or two from home so that his parents will not find out about the deal. During the first few days the joint owners of the car drive around on gas they can purchase with their own money. But the car is merciless in its absorption of gas, yet that car spells speed and excitement. Climax: the boys pick up a few feet of rubber hose and drain the tanks of other automobiles. Result: the dejected owners of the ambulating junk stand before me charged with crime. Or the climax may be a smashup through reckless driving. Or it may be a sex offense. The end is always the same.

The carelessness of the home brings about ‘basement clubs,’found in many sections of Chicago and, I am sure, other American cities. Unsupervised, lads gather here to advance the gang spirit. And gangs thrive on vice and crime. These clubs cannot be broken up by the use of force. They can be melted only by such warm and radiant organizations as the Boy Scouts, the Y. M. C.A., and church groups for young people. Communities should show all their youngsters that clean fun can be obtained through these spiritual groups. And our public schools should be thrown open for use twenty-four hours each day. Make the boy regard the schoolhouse as his clubhouse and he is less apt to be truant. There is no surer symptom of delinquency in a boy than truancy itself.

It is true today, as always, that the root of most crime is at home. Too often do parents fail to interest themselves in the affairs of their children. Youth is left to take care of itself by parents who feel that a person in his teens is mature enough to take his burdens in his own hands. In such a premature state a youngster will pick up the gayest crowd. And ‘gay’ is too often ‘ wrong.’

Nagging parents are just as bad as phlegmatic parents. They make verbal torments for youngsters so that the home lacks the element it should have — inspiration. Naggers refuse to make children think. Subtle moralism, often difficult for a parent to devise, is much better for a home.

But even a good home cannot always curb that archenemy, unemployment. When I first came into the Boys’ Court I discovered that 90 per cent of the boys brought before me who were not attending school were without jobs. Some of these lads had left school of their own accord, permitted to do so at a certain age by the Compulsory Education Law, and some had been forced out of school by their thoughtless or selfish parents.

Most boys try to find honest work honestly. But jobs are scarce and discouragement is easy. The unemployed gang together in poolrooms or on street corners. The lads talk over their desires in life and decide that they will satisfy them even if they have to steal.

In an effort to help unemployed youth I tried an experiment. Several years ago I sent a letter to some of the larger business executives in Chicago. In it I said: —

Each day in the Boys’ Court I see a parade of boys in conflict with the law. Some are definitely antisocial, and these we treat as such, but many are in trouble because they haven’t been able to find work and earn the few dollars every boy feels he needs. Your company spends annually, by way of taxes, thousands of dollars to help maintain penal and corrective institutions which are intended to take care of boys after they get into trouble. Why not make up your mind to invest a few dollars each year in an effort to keep some boy out of trouble? The way to do it is to give him a job — create one, if necessary — and appropriate five hundred or a thousand dollars to pay him a salary during that period.

Through this appeal one hundred and six boys were given work the first year. Only two did not make good. Newspapers, eager for copy, spread the story of a judge who was trying to find jobs instead of cells for boys in trouble. This brought me a deluge of over two thousand letters asking for jobs. There were amusing requests, like this: —

Could you please recommend some minor offense for me to commit so that I too may be eligible for your employment plan for unfortunate youths?

Or desperate letters, like this: —

Having read about your intentions of finding work for about five hundred boys, I am writing in hopes that you may do something for me. I am twenty-one years old and have lost both parents. There isn’t anyone I can depend on to give me a place to sleep and at least one meal a day.

Have tramped the streets for months looking for work of any nature but without success. I tried to get in the army, the navy, and the flying corps, but could not pass because of being three quarters of an inch below specified height. I went for relief and was told that nothing could be done for me because I had no permanent place of residence for the last year. I tried to get into the C. C. camps and was told that to enlist I would have to be on the relief rolls. I passed one entire winter sleeping in hallways, garages, basements, and what not. I swore by the Almighty that I wouldn’t again, even if I had to start working overtime with a lead pipe.

And there were unusual letters, like this: —

‘Knowledge is power,’ said Bacon. That’s a hideous lie. Witness the many students who have completed their courses in the various professions and who are helpless and jobless.

I left school two years ago when I was only eighteen and have not as yet been able to secure employment. I was advised to write you a letter, so I borrowed a dime for this special delivery stamp in order that you might receive my letter quickly and grant me an interview, assistance — anything! God knows I need steadying.

I once won a medal for speaking about education, not an ordinary medal, but a state medal: I was a state winner. I prized it and considered it an honor then, but now it is a hunk of iron that sneers and mocks me at every occasion.

I live in Chicago’s slummiest district. I have tried to rise above it. But what’s the good, Judge? Do you wonder that so many boys go wrong? The very things that make for a criminal career are being forced into my hands, and when things look blurred and you’re losing your grip, it’s terribly difficult to tell the difference between right and wrong.

The writers of these particular letters need not be worried about — they have been given jobs. But they are only grains of sand picked out of a desert. There are countless lads who have not even postage for a letter.

It is this desert that worries the Boys’ Court and me. The Chicago Boys’ Court can do a great deal, but no Court can ever do enough.

To me a boy in trouble presents a problem. It is the attempt at the solution of this problem that has proved so fascinating. A so-called bad boy is only a boy with positive or potential qualities — a boy who wants to be doing things. Unfortunately he is not always doing the right things. But it’s not the boy who is wrong; it’s just the things he’s doing that are wrong. There is good in most bad boys, and it is our place to find that good and then direct and guide it before we forsake and abandon it.

That’s why I like bad boys.