From Patients to Inmates: The 1911 Defective Delinquent Law

“If the offender... is not a proper subject for the schools for the feeble-minded, or for commitment as an insane person, the court may commit such offender to a department for defective delinquents.”

“If an offender/[inmate]... so grossly misbehaves... and it appears that such offender is mentally defective,.... the judge shall order the removal of the offender to a department for defective delinquents.”

The Story Behind the 1911 Defective Delinquent Law

Ability in America Portrait of Walter E. Fernald, Superintendent of the Walter E. Fer-nald School from 1888-1924

“Cases of imbecility with criminal propensities-‘criminals who have committed no crime’ will be recognized at an early age before they have acquired facility in crime, and permanently taken out of the community...”

Walter Fernald;”The Imbecile with Criminal Instincts” (1909)
An aerial view of The Fernald School in 1933, 22 years after the Defective Delinquent Law was passed

There was a great need to make those with disabilities of any kind disappear in order to create a “better” future.

“A thirteen and fifteen-year-old... ‘confessed that they had...

drawn the tub full of water, taken

the patient from her bed and

held her under the water.’”

From the Annual Report (1906; describing events of 1905) of the Massachusetts School for the Feebleminded (written by Walter Fernald for the Institution’s Board of Directors)

What Did it Mean to be Designated as a Delinquent?

“Criminals Who Have Committed No Crime”

“This special class of defective criminals has been variously described as moral imbecile, high-grade imbecile, psychopath, criminal imbecile, imbecile with criminal instincts, etc.”

From the Report of the Commission (January, 1911), presented by Walter E. Fernald and four of his colleagues
Images and documents from the Lyman School, a reformatory institution for boys.

Violating regulations of an institution, “conducting oneself so indecently or immorally”, or “so grossly misbehaves as to render themself an unfit subject for retention” were some of the many reasons people would be designated as defective delinquent.

From the Report on Institutions for Defective Delinquents (Summer 1933) written by Louis N. Robinson.From the Report on Institutions for Defective Delinquents (Summer 1933) written by Louis N. Robinson.

The American Eugenics Movement popularized the idea that “feeblemindedness” should be reduced by “breeding out” disabilities, and “undesirable” characteristics from the human population. To eliminate these “bad genes” and avoid disabled offspring, many institutions transitioned from short term education to custodial care, where disabled people were separated by gender, and forcibly sterilized.

The same trends were happening in Waltham as well. In 1905, two girls at the Massachusetts School for Feebleminded Children, fifteen and thirteen years old, murdered a fellow “inmate” by drowning her in a bathtub. In response, Walter E. Fernald, the institution’s superintendent, began to portray all disabled people as potential criminals. He argued that people with intellectual disabilities must stay segregated from civilization in institutions for the safety of society. The institution’s previous goal of providing life-skills and then returning students to their homes and communities was no longer a viable option for Fernald.

Shortly after, Fernald helped draft law that would indefinitely detain cognitively disabled people who an expert believed posed a threat to society. These “dangerous” people would be called “Defective Delinquents” and would be housed in prison-like facilities throughout the state. The goal of the law was aimed at reducing crime rates and “defectiveness” if they thought the disabled person was a potential criminal. In an atmosphere of both Eugenics and a fear of crime, few people voiced protest against the law and states throughout the country adopted similar measures.

“Defective delinquent” was a legal designation for a cognitively disabled person who had not been convicted in a court of having committed a crime but were considered to exhibit “criminal-like behavior.” Determinations were arbitrary and would result in an indefinite detention in a prison-like facility. The legal designation was passed by the Massachusetts State legislature in 1911. It was originally proposed by Walter E. Fernald, the second Superintendent of the Massachusetts Experimental School for Teaching and Training Idiotic Children. The procedure for commitment of “Defective Delinquents” would be, according to Fernald, “similar to that used for the commitment of the insane” but the institution in which they would be placed would have, “the industry and security of a modern penal institution.” People never convicted of a crime could be sentenced to prison for life just because they were believed to have “criminal propensities.”

“‘Criminal offense’ is taken to mean ‘crime’... and includes both felonies and misdemeanors. Thus any infraction of the law, from murder to violation of traffic rules, may legally be part of the basis of commitment as a defective delinquent.”

From the Report on Institutions for Defective Delinquents (Summer 1933) written by Louis N. Robinson.