The Law: Wayward Winners

In 1923, in an outburst of moral fervor, the New York state legislature decided that incarceration was the proper treatment for any youth between 16 and 21 who "is willfully disobedient or deserts his home, and is morally depraved or in danger of becoming morally depraved." That Wayward Minor statute—paralleled by similar laws in most other states—allowed thousands of youngsters who had never committed any crime to be imprisoned along with hardened criminals.

Three typical cases:

Esther Gesicki, now 20, had been placed in a foster home after her mother entered a state mental institution. When her mother was released, Esther wanted to...

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