Document 13: "12 Years for a Five-Cent Theft," Des Moines Register and Leader, 1 September 1904, p. 10.
This is an account of the first child sentenced under the new juvenile court law. The boy, nine years old, was sentenced to reform school for the remainder of his minority under a charge of theft.
The juvenile court reformers envisioned a court that would be responsive to the needs of juvenile offenders and their families. The entire point of probation and the individual attention of judges was to make the system less harsh to children than were adult courts and to reform the young person before s/he became a hardened criminal. The first use of the juvenile court law in Iowa displays a rather different picture than the one proposed by reformers. In fact, there are definite questions raised about the new court's true tendencies if a nine-year old African American boy could be sentenced to twelve years in a reformatory for a simple theft.
TWELVE YEARS FOR
JOHNNY COOPER IS SENTENCED
TO STATE REFORM SCHOOL
COLORED LAD DOES NOT CARE
ENTERED HOUSE AT CARBON-
DALE AND TOOK COSTLY WEED.
Father Claims He Couldn't Control
and Got Arrested for Two At-
tempts – Court Record.
For purloining a 5c package of smoking tobacco, Johnny Cooper, a little 9-year-old colored lad, will enter the industrial school at Eldora as the first youngster to be sentenced from the Polk county juvenile court. And Johnny doesn't mind it either.
Johnny believes in traveling a hot pace. Appearing in court with a saucy top coat no one was prouder than he. His coat was thrown back to permit of placing his hands in his pockets, thus displaying a gorgeous expanse of brilliant red vest. About his neck was a tie of equally radiant proportions and his head was covered with a Scotch plaid of large and noisy checks. His trousers were light and fancy. They came only to the knee but were pressed and creased with care.
His heinous offense consisted in temporarily borrowing 5c worth of cheap smoking tobacco. Being 9 years of age and it being necessary for him to remain in the reform school until he is 21, he will therefore serve twelve years.
According to the evidence submitted Johnny entered a house in Carbondale and took the tobacco but discovering that he had committed an offense he returned it. But he was arrested and was confined in charge of Police Matron Babcock Tuesday night. He was not at all pleased at being restrained of his liberty and showed his displeasure by squeezing between the bars on the cell door and making his escape. Later he was returned and brought into court.
His father is a Carbondale coal miner.
"Ah don't know what the boy done," said he. "Mistah Pakah acquaint me of what Johnny done and ah tuhned him ovah to the police."
Judge McHenry immediately called court and began taking evidence against the lad.
"What has this boy done?" he asked of Cooper senior.
"Well, sah, Ah caint do nuthin' with him. Ah've tried to correct him on a numbah of occasions but it nevah' does no good. His mothah, that is step-mothah, doesn't correct him so Ah have to. In fair week he dun went away and stayed all week and now Mistah Pakah acquaint me that he dun stole some tobacco."
"Where did you sleep at the fair grounds?" asked the court of the lad.
"In a shed."
Sore at Neighbors.
There was nothing more to it. The youngster had passed an entire week at the fair grounds in company with others of his age but didn't know that he might go to confinement for twelve years for it.
"Ah've tried to punish him several times," ventured the elder Cooper, "and ah've been arrested twice foh it, so now ahm afraid to correct him."
The Carbondale constable who made the arrest was sworn and testified that Johnny had spent a week at the fair.
The lad denied that he had ever stolen anything before and no one was produced who could say that he was incorrigible. In fact, he was so small as to make the suggestion of incorrigibility a laughable one.
"Well," said Judge McHenry, "if you can't take care of him I'll have to send him to a place where he will be taken care of."
"Oh, Ah kin take keer of him," said Cooper, the elder, "if other people will keep theah noses out of mah business."
"You haven't any business with a boy," said the court. "Any man who talks like that doesn't know how to manage a child and he will go where he can be cared for."
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