A critical review of Judging Delinquents

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Emerson: Judging Delinquents


Judging Delinquents is a surprisingly thought-provoking book. Juvenile courts are not at the center of the political (or sometimes even the criminological) arena; this book is important because, in its time, it raised fundamental questions about justice in the United States and illuminated promising yet untouched areas of research. Despite the fact that Emerson studies only a single court in an unidentified metropolitan center, his book is full of hypotheses that may be useful for systemic examination.

The opening chapters describe how the court structures its relationships with the surrounding political environment and with other governmental and societal institutions with whom it must work. After a brief discussion of the setting, powers, procedures, and internal organization of the court, Emerson details the extent to which the court’s relations with enforcement and welfare agencies obstruct achievement of a treatment orientation. These chapters are startlingly sensitive to both the opportunities and constraints imposed by the court’s political and organizational context—Emerson ignores arguments about a non-partisan judiciary and notices that the judge’s past political connections help him (or her, though given the time in which this was written that seems highly unlikely) in obtaining resources for his court, while also making him sensitive to some currents of community opinion about juvenile crime.

The largest portion of the book dicusses how juveniles are judged. Emerson sees it as a process involving the assessment of ‘moral character’. One on side are ‘pitches’—arguments in favor of the defendant, made by adult sponsors such as parents or ministers. On the other side are ‘denunciations’—arguments against the defendant, mostly made by the police but occasionally made by other complainants. The court seeks to establish the moral character of the juvenile in order to determine whether they are one of three classes: ‘normal’ and therefore safe to release to the streets; ‘criminal’, and therefore requiring commitment to a detention center; or ‘disturbed’, requiring commitment to a mental institution. In the assessment, the specific act allegedly committed by the juvenile is less important that their background, prior record, and demeanor in court. If the juvenile is penitent, they are more likely to be treated leniently than if they try to deny guilt or try to bring complaints against police or other authorities. Most of the ritual surrounding in and out of court processing is interpreted by Emerson to be aimed at assessing the juveniles’ moral character and degrading his status rather than for determining the truth of the accusation against the juvenile. Several chapters examine the ways in which court agents can build up or discredit a juvenile’s character, in which the juvenile can defend character, and in which the juvenile reveals character within the structure of the courtroom. The juvenile’s moral character is particularly vulnerable throughout encounters with probation or clinic staff—by emphasizing treatment as well as control in programs, staff impose conflicting expectations that are adequately handled by few juveniles.


Emerson’s book raises many questions which, for the time period, were previously unexamined. One question concerns the conditions which have led Emerson to focus on character assessment rather than guilt—this could possibly be due to the peculiar nature of the juvenile court in seeking to ‘treat’ and rehabilitate juveniles rather than punish them. Court personnel realize that commitment to penal institutions will reinforce delinquent tendencies rather than reform the delinquent. However, the courts have neither the resources nor the methods to ‘treat’ wrongdoers (at the time of Emerson’s study; obviously, courts and viewpoints toward methods of punishment have changed since the 1960s). Consequently, the court attempts a crude form of moral assessment that can lead to a justification of its decisions to ‘help’ by probationary supervision or commitment to a penal institution (for those beyond help).

However, what Emerson describes is not an insignificant section of the judicial process; much of the adult criminal process resembles elements of the juvenile court. An overwhelming majority of those accused are put through a crude test of moral character when judges decide to release them on bail or recognizance. More thorough examinations of character are made when sentences are imposed. Since the charge to which many defendants plead guilty has little relation to the acts allegedly committed, criminal courts do not spend much time searching for the truth through the adversary process, but rather attempt to assess the moral character of defendants in an effort to determine what sentence to impose.

As briefly mentioned in the introduction, the book points the way toward systemic research. Emerson has shown some of the dimensions of court behavior that exist. His description is reminiscent of a magnified photograph of a lunar landscape—it reveals irregularities which we need to examine more closely in order to measure their frequency and the conditions which are associated with their existence. While in present day these irregularities have likely been studied and explained, this may not have been the case at the time of publication; significant variables on Emerson’s n=1 study, such as the normative culture of the surrounding community, the range of offenders subjected to juvenile court proceedings, and the degree of intervention by defense attorneys would have an effect on Emerson’s description of how the court assesses moral character.

Whether measured against the author’s objectives or against the contributions of Cicourel, Lemert, and Matza, Judging Delinquents, while thought-provoking, can be unsatisfactory; a number of limitations take away from Emerson’s (admittedly notable) achievements in identifying key dimensions of the labeling process and in describing the relevant character of interactions between court officials and delinquents. Little effort is made to inform the reader about the nature and adequacy of the field work performed; in addition, while detailed and thoroughly examined, Emerson’s work on only one court system can hardly be considered generalizable to all juvenile courts (see above for a discussion of variables that may affect his work). The conceptualization of moral character and its three classes—moral, criminal, and disturbed—is unclear, despite the reference to “overall behavior, personality, and family and social circumstances”.

Although the importance of social class and family situation is occasionally acknowledged, basic background characteristics are not systematically explored in relation to interactional patterns and ultimate outcomes; how would the delinquent path of a juvenile from a white, middle-class family differ from that of a juvenile from a black or Hispanic family in the same class? In different classes? While such questions have been explored since the publication of Emerson’s work, there is no reason why he could not have included even cursory answers to these and other questions.

Emerson’s distance from the participants is also concerning. In view of the stress on the dynamics and consequences of the labeling process, it is difficult to understand why Emerson neglects the juveniles’ perspectives on their court experiences. In addition, he seems to be relying more than he needs to on indirect inferences backed up by occasional anecdotes; the complete dependence on anecdotal excerpts damages any sense of continuity in the processing of individual cases through sequential stages and obscures the real meaning and significance of specific episodes. Using more fully developed anecdotes would have provided the reader with a better understanding of the meanings members of the court ascribe to the court process.


Emerson’s work opened a field of inquiry which few others, sociologist or political scientist, had examined. Judging Delinquents is heavy with researchable propositions (that have no doubt been expounded upon since); it should have a wide audience, if at least to gain a basic understanding of juvenile courts.