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Interpreting the Evidence

Crime and Punishment

  • Documents in this Activity:
  • Historical Era:

    Turn of the Century and WWI (1890 - 1930)

  • Thinking Skill:

    Historical Comprehension

  • Grade Level:

    Middle School
    High School

  • Topics:


  • Primary Source Types:

    Written Document

  • Regions:

    Capital District
    New York State

  • Creator:

    NYS Archives Partnership Trust Education Team

  1. Load Town of Schodack Justice's Criminal Docket, 1897-1900 in Main Image Viewer

Suggested Teaching Instructions

Topic: Industrialized society, Social patterns in the early 1900s, Crime

Skills: Critical thinking, Problem solving, Cite textual evidence

This document shows how the legal system operated in the late 1800s and what types of punishments juvenile delinquents could receive during this era

 ​​​​Historical Context: The rise of industrialization in the second half of the nineteenth century led to many changes in the American social fabric. The population expanded, poverty spread, and crime became a bigger problem. The legal system became an important means for policing people in American communities.

Children had been prosecuted in American courts since their earliest days. In fact, children in the eighteenth century had been subject to the death penalty. In the early nineteenth century, reformers felt that the law dealt too harshly with children.  They created special schools where children could be reformed rather than punished. Judges could sentence children who had committed crimes to go to these schools until they reached adulthood. In the early twentieth century, juvenile delinquency was removed from the penal (or criminal) code and separate courts were established for juvenile and family matters. Children are no longer considered to be legally accountable for their actions in the same way adults are. Judges today are required to consider what would be least restrictive when deciding punishments for juveniles.

Essential Question: What does this document tell us about social problems that existed at the turn of the twentieth century?

Check for Understanding:

1.       Students write a paragraph answering the essential question.

2.       Students discuss how these documents relate to what they have read in their textbook on urban life in the Progressive Era.

Optional Extension Activity
The following activity could be completed in order to extend students’ thinking and encourage them to make connections:

1.      What are some crimes today that might not be punished so harshly in the future? (Ex. Downloading music)

2.      What is not a crime today that might be punished harshly in the future? (Ex. Cyberbullying)

3.      How does change in society require changes in the laws? Is the law always able to keep up with the pace of society? Write a paragraph explaining your views.