November 6, 1646 – Massachusetts Enacts Punishment for Bad 16-Year-Old Boys

On this day in history, the General Court of Massachusetts Bay enacted the following law, known as “The Stubborn Child Law”:

If a man have a stubborn or rebellious son, of sufficient years and understanding (viz.) sixteen years of age, which will not obey the voice of his Father, or the voice of his Mother, and that when they have chastened him will not harken unto them: then shall his Father and Mother being his natural parents, lay hold on him, and bring him to the Magistrates assembled in Court and testify unto them, that their son is stubborn and rebellious and will not obey their voice and chastisement, but lives in sundry notorious crimes, such a son shall be put to death.”

This law, John R. Sutton writes in “Stubborn Children: Law and the Socialization of Deviance in the Puritan Colonies,” Family Law Quarterly Vol. 15, No. 1 (Spring 1981), pp. 31-64, is regarded as the progenitor of modern juvenile justice statutes. Thereafter, “stubborn child laws” were enacted in Connecticut in 1650, Rhode Island in 1668, and New Hampshire in 1679. Sutton adds further that “By legitimizing state intervention into the family, the law appear to foreshadow the 1838 case of Ex parte Crouse, which introduced the doctrine of parens patriae into American law, and which has never been entirely repudiated.” (You can read more about the Crouse case, in which the court ruled that the judicial system had the right to assist families with troubled youth, here.)

Sutton also makes the case that the law was part of a wider set of laws enacted at the time that attempted to codify the concept of the Puritan covenant, since in New England, religion was “the organizing principle of social life”:

As it became realized in the form of a legal order, then, the covenant became a true contract, divine in significance, which bound leaders and followers, officials and citizens, parents and children into an interlocking system of mutual obligations.”

In the first half of the nineteenth century, Sutton notes, Puritan ideas about the family, childhood, and deviance “were transformed and brought to fruition by Calvinist-dominated movements for social reform.

The Stubborn Child Law remained on the statute books of Massachusetts for over three hundred years. The legislature eventually dropped death as a penalty and broadened the law to include daughters. But the law was not repealed until 1973. Nevertheless, a version of it remains, in Section 53 “Penalty for Certain Offenses” of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts laws, which defines offenses as:

Section 53. (a) Common night walkers, common street walkers, both male and female, persons who with offensive and disorderly acts or language accost or annoy another person, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of not more than $200, or by both such fine and imprisonment. (b) Disorderly persons and disturbers of the peace, for the first offense, shall be punished by a fine of not more than $150. On a second or subsequent offense, such person shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of not more than $200, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”

In addition, juvenile law even outside of Massachusetts is still harsh. The United States stands alone as the only nation that sentences juveniles to life without parole for crimes committed before turning 18. The Sentencing Project reviews the Supreme Court cases on the subject here.


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