New Concepts of Justice

Mary Bartelme was raised in a family of six children. She decided to become a teacher and taught for five years. She changed her career aspirations and decided to become a lawyer. With her background in teaching, Mary focused her legal practice on advocacy for young people.

The treatment of children in the courts was uncaring and harsh at the time (early 1900’s). Many young girls, who were basically on their own, turned to prostitution to survive. Both boys and girls were often arrested for delinquency because they had to skip school to earn money for basic necessities.

Mary was appointed to become the first woman to serve as Public Guardian in Cook County, Illinois. For 16 years she took care of children without biological guardians. Mary took her advocacy to a new level when she lobbied for legislation to create a Juvenile Court system. The court system, with its focus on youth, became much more responsive to the needs of children. Mary served as an assistant judge in this system for 10 years and heard over 50,000 cases. During her tenure, Mary was elevated to Judge of the Juvenile Court making her the second female judge in America.

One of Mary’s innovations was to establish a Girls’ Court where everyone in the courtroom was female. This court was less intimidating to girls who were often charged with sex crimes. Mary then established Mary Clubs as group homes which served as alternatives to placing girls in state institutions. The clubs accepted girls of all races.

Mary’s work with youth became known nationally and internationally. The youth court system that Mary created became the model for the rest of the nation. But Mary’s concept of restorative justice may have an even great impact on our courts. What Mary did to help youth change their lives has become the goal of judicial sentencing, especially for youth.

It is noteworthy that it took a woman’s perspective to bring about two major innovations in our legal system: juvenile courts and restorative justice. For years the courts were viewed as places where guilt or innocence was determined and punishments were decided for those who were found guilty. Mary’s view of the courts was much more holistic. She examined the circumstances that led to the crime, the character of the offender, and the prospects for turning the offender into a productive contributor to society. Mary was the second woman judge in America but one of the most important judges in our history for her contributions to a more humane justice system. She became an icon for justice reforms to follow.

Just imagine how the lives of the 50,000+ juveniles were changed as a result of Mary’s decisions regarding the resolution of their cases? Just imagine how Mary’s innovations have continued to influence our thinking about how our courts should function? Just imagine the contributions that one person can make in one of the most important issues still facing our country: how is justice best delivered?

* * *

Judicial judgement must take deep account of the day before yesterday in order that yesterday not paralyze today.
– Felix Frankfurter (Former Supreme Court Justice)

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.