Glen Mills Schools in Glen Mills, Pa., in March. A spokeswoman for the nation's oldest reform school says they'll appeal the state's decision to revoke licenses at the suburban Philadelphia campus amid an investigation into child abuse allegations. (Matt Rourke/AP)
Amber Armstrong is a graduate student in the JD/PhD Program in legal history at the University of Pennsylvania.

Glen Mills Schools, one of America’s first reform schools, should be one of its last.

On March 25, the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services ordered the school to remove all of the boys from its care. After reporting revealed that abuse was an “open secret” and coverups abounded, the state finally took action by revoking all of Glen Mills Schools’ licenses. The state auditor general will launch an investigation, and students and parents have filed a class-action lawsuit.

While a Philadelphia Inquirer investigation revealed that the school had failed to follow state and internal policies for decades, the roots of the problem go back to its founding as the Philadelphia House of Refuge (PHR) nearly 200 years ago. The ideologies that first created reformatories like the PHR, with their misguided reliance on the purportedly positive power of incarcerating children, have opened the door for the alleged abuses and disasters in facilities like Glen Mills.

Exposure of the alleged horrors at Glen Mills gives us an opportunity to discard a very broken model and allow research to inform the creation of a new one — one that actually helps troubled youth live meaningful, productive lives.

Reform schools actually began as an effort to get youth out of prison. Social reformers, including many Quakers, created penitentiaries between the 1790s and 1810s in the hope that the right environment (isolation, silence, labor) would awaken inmates’ minds, bodies and souls to proper belief and conduct. Yet riots, violence, suicide, chronic overcrowding and arson brought penitentiaries’ basic vision of moral reform under fire.

But reformers held steadfast that delinquent children (a category they codified in Pennsylvania state law for the first time) were capable of reformation in a way criminal adults were not. They relied heavily on enlightenment ideas to argue that youth, by their nature, could not be fully accountable before the law and should be kept out of criminal legal proceedings.

This led to the creation of PHR and other reformatories, 50 years before the advent of the juvenile court system. Children sent to the PHR did not, for the most part, receive criminal sentences.

A sense that children were different — deserving of mercy rather than punishment — motivated the creation of reformatories. Yet these facilities mimicked the penitentiary model, and their creators increasingly cited strict carceral control as the best vehicle for delivering mercy. The leaders of the reformatory movement had not given up on the penitentiary model, they simply tried to perfect it.

Believing that the poor have an inevitable predisposition to crime, PHR’s first managers thought that poor, mostly immigrant children had a “criminal tendency” and lived in families that lacked proper “protection and guidance.” The solution? To change their environment by incarcerating them, regardless of guilt or innocence.

These ideas about the causes of and solutions for delinquency were then codified into law. The first 10 years of PHR’s operation culminated in habeas corpus litigation, ex parte Crouse, which came before the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania in 1838. PHR successfully argued that it could hold delinquent children without a criminal trial or conviction. Their confinement was not about individual guilt, but about steering a general class of poor children.

In the late 19th century, a new wave of activists, the “child savers,” renewed efforts to reform rather than punish delinquents. They saw existing reformatories as overcrowded, inconsistent and abusive. And so they created the system of juvenile courts, probation officers and residential facilities we recognize today. Yet while well-intended, such institutions only further ingrained the core tenet of the reformatory movement: incarceration betters the lives of poor children.

This ideology justified the continued incarceration of children and ignored the reality of life in reformatories. These institutions remained hellacious places, as proven again this month with the discovery of 27 potential graves adjacent to the former Dozier School for Boys in Florida. Dozier, a notoriously brutal reformatory, opened in 1897 as the Florida State Reform School with designs of being a different sort of institution, but over more than a century of existence, it carved a path of abuse and brutality similar to, if not worse than, what’s alleged at Glen Mills.

Despite the failed effort to fix the reformatory model, incarceration only expanded throughout the 20th century, especially during the “tough on crime” heyday of the 1980s. But the rationale has remained the same: A confined environment can help needy youths overcome their criminal ways, in part because it gets them out of the poor communities believed to fuel delinquency.

Indeed, criminology research shows that juvenile court officials perceive children in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods — most often communities of color — as especially vulnerable and are more likely to send them to carceral institutions, ostensibly to get them out of these neighborhoods. The consequence is a system that today continues to fruitlessly and destructively remove children of color from their communities to give them mercy behind bars.

However, there is no evidence that juvenile residential facilities actually offer anything close to mercy or a solid foundation for adulthood or that they reduce the likelihood of repeat offenses. By contrast, a more positive and less punitive approach — providing therapeutic services, especially those that “include a youth empowerment and/or a strengths-based perspective” — has been shown to lower rates of future criminal charges.

What this tells us is that the reformers who centuries ago plotted the course for reformatories were both right and wrong. Children have immense capacity for growth and change. But the methods they envisioned for helping youth were all wrong. Instead of a juvenile justice system focused on incarceration and social control, we need one that fully embraces mercy without paternalistic control and without legal accountability in the form of incarceration.

The reformatory movement sought to corral and control young offenders — it was the antithesis of the individual empowerment proven most effective today.

The notion that children’s nature or society’s needs justifies youth incarceration needs to end, along with Glen Mills.