History of Juvenile Justice Research Paper

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The creation of the juvenile justice system began with the efforts of benevolent individuals and institutions who responded to the evolving social, economic, and political issues in early America. The juvenile justice system reflected a change in society that addressed and recognized the distinct differences between adults and juveniles. The first juvenile court sought to avoid the adversarial system of the adult court and emphasized individual treatment and rehabilitation. The juvenile court addressed issues concerning those children who allegedly committed delinquent offenses as well as those neglected and abused children. The parens patriae doctrine gave the court authority over the child if the parent was deemed unable and/or unwilling to care for the child. The operation of the juvenile court remained relatively uncontested until the 1960s when the US Supreme Court intervened and questioned the practices of the juvenile court. Prior to US Supreme Court intervention, the juvenile court had complete discretion and authority over the treatment and placement of juveniles. The US Supreme court cases extended many due process protections offered adults to juveniles. Thus, began a shift towards punitive sanctions for juveniles. Although the juvenile justice system has tried to balance both rehabilitation and appropriate sanctions for delinquency, policy changes made in the late twentieth century tended to favor punitive sanctions and the criminalization of juveniles. However, it can be argued that the current juvenile justice system is again moving towards rehabilitation.


Prior to the seventeenth century, there was no concept for childhood and thus juveniles who committed crimes were treated as adults. England’s 1600 Chamberlain’s Court, a court that handled disputes of English children who served as apprentices, is the forerunner to the current juvenile court of the United States. England attempted to address the problem of delinquency by developing ages of culpability, between the ages of 8 and 14, and by establishing havens to commit delinquent youth. In 1756, the English Marine Society, which also served to provide soldiers for war, was created for poor and delinquent boys and the House of Refuge for Orphan Girls was created in 1758 and in 1788, England established the first private juvenile prison.

The history of juvenile justice in the United States is based on English laws and began as early as the seventeenth century. According to Platt (1977), the plight to create a system in the United States that is unique to juveniles can be traced to the seventeenth century. The Stubborn Child laws were established in Massachusetts in the 1600s. This law was the first to distinguish the behavior of children from that of adults. The law granted the authority to punish children for behavior or actions deemed inappropriate. The Puritan ideals, which rested primarily in religion, emphasized the family, community, education, and the church to teach children how to be morally responsible law-abiding adults. The stubborn child law basically made disobeying a parent an act punishable by death. This law was the first of many that used the law to govern the behavior of children and to outline the expectations of parents. The enactment of the stubborn child law reflected political values of the Commonwealth as a means of maintaining social control by way of the law. The basic Puritan ideals of 1646 have, to a certain extent, withstood the test of time as politics and ideologies continue to guide the laws of today. The Puritans maintained that no individual was exempt from sin and it was the responsibility of the moral institutions (family, church, and community) to train and educate children in the proper manner. Social institutions were held responsible for molding children.

The term “delinquency” resulted from modernism and was coined in the 1700s. However, the issue of juvenile delinquency heightened during the nineteenth century. The rapid industrialization that took place during the 1800s in the United States brought about changes for which people and society may not have been prepared. Prior to urbanization, the parent and the community handled crimes by juveniles informally. Other methods used for controlling juvenile delinquency included indentured servant-ship, corporal and capital punishment, and transport to other countries, respectively. The means of social control for juveniles progressed to housing juveniles in adult prisons. Urbanization resulted in increased crime, as there was an influx of immigrants and a population boom.

Platt (1977) describes the rapid growth experienced by many towns, and how city populations grew at seven times the rate compared to the doubling of rural populations during the same time frame. Thus, cities grew at unexpected rates. As the population grew by drastic numbers, so did the competition for jobs and housing. The populations of cities, such as Chicago and New York, grew because of immigration and the migration of people from the southern part of the United States to the northern part of the United States.

Migrant families left the spacious surroundings of rural life, collective familial assistance, and cohesiveness for overcrowded urban life where the competition for jobs and housing was fierce. The design of the family unit was forever changed. The family lost fathers as authoritarian figures during industrialism because individualism became more important. People no longer felt a sense of community and the role of the father seemed to diminish. The move from communal life to individuality in the city brought light to the issue of juvenile delinquency. City life was viewed by reformers and the middle class as a breeding ground for a life of crime primarily for immigrant and migrant youth. Social reformers saw the need to redirect negative behavior and made attempts to transform the poor, immigrant youth into productive citizens.

The Reformers And Juvenile Institutions

The idea of helping children was a focal point of the progressive movement and the fight for children’s rights taking place in the United States at the time (Hawes 1991). Social reformers viewed children as the innocent victims of the changing culture and industrial advances. The vulnerability of the children was a great concern to the child advocates of the time. Some of the better known reformers are known as the Chicago-based child savers (Platt 1977). Upperand middle-class individuals stepped in to try and rescue poor, neglected, and mistreated urban children.

Before the reform attempts of the Chicago-based child savers, there existed other out-of-home placement options for children across the county. One of the first known homes for youth in the United States was the House of Refuge, which opened in 1825. As early as 1819, a report came out that mentioned a lack of separate penitentiaries for juveniles. The Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents established the New York House of Refuge for children who were in danger of growing up to be paupers and delinquents. The opening of the House of Refuge was the catalyst for the opening of at least 16 similar type homes in several other cities throughout the United States. The New York home opened with the intention of keeping youth apart from adults when confined. Youth confined to the House of Refuge could be committed with indeterminate sentences; youth did not have to engage in delinquent conduct to be committed and parents could ask for direct confinement.

Regardless of the attempts of reformers to rehabilitate juvenile offenders and poor youth, the House of Refuge settings did not alleviate juvenile delinquency. While the founders of the House of Refuge masked their good deeds for poor, immoral children by financially supporting the home, their true intentions were to keep members of the upper class in power. The wealthy supporters of the House of Refuge wanted to maintain control over the impoverished to protect their own status and maintain power over them using religion as a justification. The Houses of Refuge were known for enforcing corporal punishment, solitary confinement, and other physical punishments against children. Additionally, the children in these homes were used as cheap labor. A movement from privately run homes to state-run institutions was on the horizon. There was a disconnect between the promise of proper care and the abuse suffered by males and females at many of the Houses of Refuge; children suffered brutal beatings and physical abuse.

Although some may have the impression that the House of Refuge and reformatories are the same, they are discussed as distinct placements for juveniles. There was US transition from House of Refuge placements to reformatories. Reformatories replaced Houses of Refuge in the late nineteenth century because Houses of Refuge were deemed to be too harsh; yet, reformatories stressed training and subjected children to drills and constant supervision. Reformatories, unlike the Houses of Refuge were state-supported entities and strived to portray a parent–child setting for the juvenile. This did not prove the case because reformatories operated in a prison-like fashion with a coercive, rigid setting.

Reformatories began in the state of Massachusetts in 1848. Reformatories opened across the United States just as quickly as the Houses of Refuge. The best known of reformatories is perhaps the Elmira Reformatory established in 1876 in New York. In New York after the Civil War, there was an increase in crime which led to a lack of trust in the courts, police officers, and the overall justice system. The general public did not believe the justice system was doing enough to eliminate juvenile crime. As a result of the distrust, penal reformers favored a movement towards reformatories. Elmira was built to provide youthful offenders with structure and discipline to become obedient members of society. The core reasons for establishing reformatories were to segregate children from adults, remove children from the ills of society, minimize court intervention, indeterminate sentencing, enforce the cottage approach, make youth productive, and introduce compulsory education. Enoch C. Wines was the authority on reformatories prior to the twentieth century because he was an advocate of youth reformatories and an expert on crime and penology. Reformatory advocates assumed that hard work, discipline, and education could reverse poverty, poor parenting, and a dangerous environment and produce respectable members of society. Reformatories remained popular for about 40 years, and this foundation of rehabilitation can still be found in present-day juvenile correctional settings. Despite the names of these out-of-home placements, providing youth with educational, spiritual, and vocational enrichment appeared to be the goal. It was hoped that giving youth a solid foundation would prevent further delinquency. Children were held in reformatories without being convicted of a crime, and concern regarding this issue prompted the establishment of a juvenile court.

Child advocates were located throughout the United States; while reformers included men, the majority was women who had an interest in child care reform. The child savers were a group comprised of Chicago women, primarily of middle and upper class, who wanted to make an impact on shaping the lives of youth. The agenda of the child savers tied in to the progressive reforms taking place during the time. Many of the women who were fighting for reforms for children were also advocating for the rights of women and other social changes. The social reformers, club women, and politicians pushing for change were made up mostly of middle class, white Protestants hoping to change the lives of poor immigrants. While most reformers may have come from the middle class, a few of the women, like Louise de Koven Bowen, were quite wealthy. Ms. Bowen was independently wealthy even though she married a well-to-do banker. While the duties carried out by most of these women were done in their spare time, so as not to interfere with their family obligations, it seems that the tasks were more than hobbies. In addition to trying to reform city children, the women of the child savers movement also looked into the conditions of the jails where they found some children housed with adults. As a result of some of these findings, it seems the child savers preferred having youth, under 17 years of age, sent to reform schools instead of jails to save them from adult criminal labels.

Although many of the child savers were educated, they had limited choices for careers. Nonetheless, these women used their influence, money, and political connections to reform the way young people were handled in the justice system. Jane Addams, another woman born to privilege and wealth, founded Hull House in 1889. Jane Addams was a leader in many other Progressive Era groups that tackled organized labor and women’s rights issues. As women like Bowen and Addams pushed for improving the way juveniles were handled in the criminal justice system and the foster care system, they utilized their maternal instincts, networking skills, and political influence. The women influenced the development of professional social workers. The serious issues highlighted by the child savers and their desire to have jurisdiction over children eventually led to the push for establishing the first juvenile court. Prior to the establishment of separate courts for juveniles, many youth were sent to poor houses, homes, reformatories, and industrial schools for indefinite periods of time or until the age of majority.

The men and women involved in the movement of children and youth reforms of the 1800s created, shaped, and impacted professions in the juvenile justice system. Just like the early reformers who founded the House of Refuge, the reformers of the latter nineteenth century wanted out-of-home placements that would have greater emphasis on education with the possibility of learning a trade or earning an apprenticeship. The juvenile court movement was a push to change punitive reformatories into humane schools where children could acquire skills in certain trades.

Preventing juvenile delinquency and reforming wayward children was based on the popular beliefs of the reformers. The people in charge of improving the social conditions of children did so by imparting their moral and spiritual values. Religion was used as the foundation. Members of Christian groups would enter city jails and teach Sunday school lessons to boys in hopes of imparting their own religious values and beliefs.

In addition to a strong religious foundation, the child savers believed strongly in the benefits of rural life. They believed rural living would decrease juvenile delinquency in urban areas; therefore, children were transported to western parts of the United States. Even before the Houses of Refuge was established, children were relocated to rural parts in the early 1800s; youth were sent to work on farms in other states. As the number of incarcerated youth in cities grew, supporters agreed to relocate many of the Houses of Refuge to rural areas. There was a belief that there was a purity in rural living which was a sharp contrast with the corruption of city life. A lack of confidence in Houses of Refuge led post-Civil War child savers to open more cottage-style homes for youth.

Cottage-like reformatories were different from traditional youth reformatories because fewer children were housed together; each cottage had its own dining, schooling, and recreational schedule. Additionally, each cottage was run by a married, Christian couple who served as the mother and father figure to the detained children. The cottage-plan reformatory was used to provide delinquent and neglected youth with a wholesome and loving home with the hope they would escape the temptation and corruption of the city. The new penology sought intensive supervision and to create an atmosphere of family life with the cottage plan. The cottage-plan reformatory would, theoretically, provide a natural, peaceful environment that was conducive to a healthy and productive life.

The Establishment Of The Juvenile Court

The first juvenile court was established in Chicago, Illinois (Cook County), in 1899. However, before the bill to establish the court was signed into law, there was much debate and controversy. In addition to the women previously mentioned, there were other men and women who played key roles in getting the “Juvenile Court Act” passed (Anderson 1988). The Gover- nor of Chicago at the time, John P. Altgeld, was an advocate for child reform. Governor Altgeld’s advocacy days began when he was an attorney in the 1880s; he studied and wrote about the treatment of children processed through the criminal justice system. His writings mentioned that the handcuffing of children, housing them with adult offenders, and sending them to houses of correction prepared them for a life of crime.

As Governor, Altgeld appointed Julia Lathrop, a social reformer in her own right, to the Board of State Commissioners of Public Charities in 1892. Ms. Lathrop was a very close friend of Jane Addams. She visited all 102 counties in the state of Illinois. Julia Lathrop was also part of the Chicago Woman’s Club, where she worked closely with Lucy Flower, the club president. Ms. Flower returned to Chicago in 1895 after spending time in Boston studying 25 years of the probation system. Upon returning to Chicago, Ms. Flower urged the women to propose legislation to have separate hearings for young offenders; however, the group’s legal advisors did not feel comfortable moving forward with the proposal as it was. A year earlier in 1894, Mrs. Perry Smith, a volunteer with the Protective Agency for Women and Children also asked for a separate court for youth. And while some felony youth offender cases were heard on Saturday mornings, this involved only a small number of cases. A few years later, the push to establish the juvenile court continued with greater force.

The full title of the “Juvenile Court Act” that called for separate hearings for youth was “An Act to Regulate the Treatment and Control of Dependent, Neglected, and Delinquent Children.” While the earlier attempts to push the legislation forward came primarily from the Chicago Woman’s Club and perhaps even a handful of men, the women decided that the new legislation should be introduced by men, more specifically, male attorneys (Anderson 1988). The women would still play a vital role in getting the bill passed; however, the lawyers would lead the discussions and debates. One must keep in mind that many of these women were also involved in the ongoing fight for women’s rights due to being treated as second-class citizens to men. Their status in the fight for children’s rights was no different, but they were bright enough to place men in the forefront of the struggle. The bill was reviewed by Judge Harvey Hurd and it was determined that the passing of the bill, as it was written, would also go against the Illinois constitution because of a uniformity clause. Ongoing tensions between Chicago and other parts of Illinois meant that not everyone in the state would support a mandated, statewide initiative. As a result, Judge Hurd recommended the language in the bill be changed to be permissive rather than obligatory. Thus, cities could opt out of creating a separate juvenile court if they so chose.

The main opposition to the proposed bill came from those who supported the industrial schools for youth, perhaps, because of a potential loss of state funding. Oscar Dudley, a strong opponent to the bill, believed that there was still a place for industrial schools because not all children were equipped to live at home. The authors of the bill decided to bargain with the industrial school supporters and allowed them to retain the power to release youth or place them in foster care without the court’s consent.

After much negotiation and some amendments, the bill would be signed into law and incarcerated youth under the age of 16 would be kept separate from adults, except in the cases of capital felony offenders. Some argue that the juvenile court was established to benefit law enforcement, judges, and prosecutors. Nevertheless, child care reformers seemed to gain a huge victory and the juvenile justice system in the United States was born. The creation of the juvenile court did not come without opposition. Although the creation of a separate court for children was a milestone, there were opponents who believed the juvenile judges had too much power over youth and their families.

While the United States was engaged in a war in Europe in the early part of the twentieth century, the struggle for reform continued at home. The United States Children’s Bureau was created in 1912 with reformer Julia Lathrop named its first director by President Taft. A new concept of childhood developed as more and more children were encouraged to obtain an education. The creation of the Cook County Juvenile Court spurred the creation of other juvenile courts throughout the nation in the early part of the twentieth century. All but two states had some form of a juvenile court by 1927; and by 1932, there were over 600 juvenile courts in the United States. Shortly after the end of World War II, all states had a juvenile court.

In regards to juvenile justice, the interconnectedness of social influence and policies peaked in the 1960s. Although arguments and objections had been brought against the juvenile court since its inception, the first juvenile case did not reach the US Supreme Court until the 1960s. Five Supreme Court Decisions relating to juveniles will be discussed along with the social and political context of the time. Additionally, the policies surrounding treatment for offenders through the remainder of the twentieth century will be mentioned because treatment is also dependent on the social climate of the day.

The 1960s

During the 1960s and 1970s, states began to distinguish between treatment, punishment, and confinement of juvenile delinquents. Prior to the establishment of the first juvenile court, many of the offenses for which youth came to the attention of court were not criminal in nature. Youth viewed as poor, incorrigible, and disobedient could be incarcerated indefinitely or until the age of majority (18 or 21). Several decades after the establishment of the juvenile court, some youth were still being detained for committing status offenses. Often status offenders were punished more severely than other delinquents in the 1960s.

During the 1960s, the issues surrounding the labeling of youth came to light. Indeed, an entire theory on labeling was formulated by various individuals. Moreover, less imposing rehabilitative measures were promoted. Only the most serious of offenders were to be placed in institutions and detention centers. This stance towards rehabilitation followed the original premise of the juvenile court: the parens patriae doctrine. One of the best aspects of the original juvenile court was the care and treatment it could provide to children. Judge Ben B. Lindsey, the first juvenile court judge in Denver, believed the court was to be an extension of the community and society. Others refer to the juvenile court as being a provider of services to treat causes of misbehavior in order to restore the youth to be a responsible member in the family and the community at large. Despite the mindset of politicians and practitioners of the time, a number of juvenile court matters made their way to the US Supreme Court.

Supreme Court Decisions Of The 1960s And 1970s

The social unrest of the 1960s and 1970s would bring with it challenges to the juvenile court process. Along with minority groups and women fighting for equal rights, certain juvenile rights, or lack thereof, were called into question. There are five landmark decisions that contributed to our current juvenile justice system.

The first juvenile landmark case to make it to the Supreme Court took place in 1966. Kent v. United States brought into question the transferring of juveniles to adult criminal courts. A District of Columbia 16-year-old was judicially waived to the adult court system without a hearing. The youth would subsequently be convicted and sentenced to 99 years in prison. Kent’s attorney was not allowed to view his file and was denied psychiatric testing for his client. The outcome of the case called for hearings for juveniles being transferred to adult court. Additionally, District of Columbia youth were granted the right to counsel in a transfer hearing with the attorney also given the right to access a juvenile’s social records. This court ruling would lay the foundation for the next Supreme Court case the following year.

Perhaps the most transforming of landmark cases relating to juvenile matters is In re Gault in 1967. A 15-year-old, Arizona resident Gerald F. Gault was accused by his female, adult neighbor of making an obscene telephone call. Gault’s parents were not called about their child’s detainment, and in two separate hearings, the complaining witness was not present. Moreover, the youth had no legal representation and was never advised of any rights. There was even a question as to whether the youth or his friend made the obscene remarks. Regardless, the youth was committed to the State Industrial School where he was to remain until he turned 21. The case went to the US Supreme Court. Upon hearing the case, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Gerald Gault and granted all juveniles the following due process rights: (1) Right to timely notice of actual charges, (2) Right to an attorney in hearings, (3) Right to confront accuser, and (4) Protection against self-incrimination. In essence, juveniles were afforded many of the rights given to adults.

The mid-1970s brought a movement against detaining status offenders because they had not broken any actual criminal laws. President Ford’s signing of the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act called for the decriminalization and deinstitutionalization of status offenders. Some status offenses are “redefined” so they can be considered delinquent offenses. Thus, in a matter of years, a shift towards a more punitive form of justice developed. There are three more important Supreme Court Decisions that took place in the 1970s.

The Winship Case of 1970 was also of great importance. In New York, 12-year-old Samuel Winship was charged with breaking into a woman’s locker and stealing over $100 from her purse. Winship was found guilty because the state’s burden of proof was based on civil proceedings “preponderance of the evidence” and not the “beyond a reasonable doubt” burden of proof used in adult criminal cases. A “preponderance of the evidence” means that more evidence exists that a person committed a crime than evidence that a person did not commit a crime. The standard of “preponderance of the evidence” was used in juvenile cases because they had always been seen as civil court matters, as opposed to criminal. The Supreme Court ruled that juveniles accused of crimes that may result in a possible loss of freedom through confinement should be afforded the same burden of proof of beyond a reasonable doubt.

A year later in 1971 came the case of McKeiver v. the State of Pennsylvania. Two teenagers charged with engaging in delinquent conduct, including 16-year-old Joseph McKeiver, were denied the right to a jury trial. The Supreme Court upheld the decision that while adults may have the right to a trial by jury, juveniles do not. States could choose to extend the right to a jury trial to juveniles, but it was not a federal mandate. The rationale behind the ruling was to preserve the foundational principles of the juvenile court system. Justice Blackmun and his colleagues were concerned that a jury trial would invite delays and possible publicity endured by adults. Nonetheless, some states do afford juveniles the right to a trial by jury.

In 1975, a fifth case came before the Supreme Court: Breed v. Jones. Seventeen-year-old Gary Jones was adjudicated for armed robbery and two other offenses involving a weapon. Jones committed the offense on February 8, 1970 and was adjudicated delinquent on March 1, 1970. The dispositional phase of the case was set 2 weeks later. At disposition, the court waived jurisdiction to the adult system. Jones’ attorney appealed his case, arguing he had been subjected to double jeopardy. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling that Jones was subjected to double jeopardy and that transfer of jurisdiction hearings needed to take place prior to adjudication. Additionally, once any evidence is heard at a juvenile hearing, a youth cannot be subjected to adult criminal proceedings.

The five Supreme Court cases challenged and called for a change in how juvenile court matters are handled. While legal proceedings for youth remained civil in nature, the landmark decisions added an element of criminal court proceedings. The protests and outcries of the 1960s and 1970s would lay the groundwork for equal treatment across various sectors in society. As women and other minority groups pressed for reform measures, the treatment of juvenile delinquents was equally in the judicial spotlight. Although considerable strides were achieved, the decade to follow would bring a conservative political shift that would change treatment options from rehabilitative to punitive.

1980s to Present Day

The 1980s brought a different conservative, hardened perspective towards crime and offenders. Perhaps the media coverage during the 1980s and 1990s increased the public’s concern regarding how criminals were being handled by the justice system. A punitive versus rehabilitation mode of dealing with offenders impacted the adult and juvenile justice systems. The penetration of “crack” cocaine and the increase in gun-related youth killings ignited the “war on drugs.” The so-called war on drugs fueled by the conservative right during the 1980s brought forth stiffer punishments for drug offenders. As a result, there was an increase in drug offense–related arrests. This ushered in the conservative “tough on crime” agenda of the 1980s. Williams and McShane (2009) point out that by the time the Reagan administration was beginning the “war on drugs,” drug use was actually on the decline. Regardless, an era of “deterrence and punishment” became the reality for juvenile offenders. It appears that the juvenile justice system abandoned its founding principle of rehabilitating juveniles.

The shifts in treatment echo Bernard’s (1992) cyclical patterns in juvenile justice. The public is always viewing juvenile crime as being on the rise, either because we are too lenient or too harsh with our rehabilitation efforts. The latter part of the 1990s saw the emergence of a different perspective to the treatment of offenders. Some believe that even during the “tough on crime” era, practitioners were developing new strategies that focused on prevention, early intervention, and rehabilitation.

The “renewed” interest in rehabilitation was mainly due to the costs associated with an increase in the prison population. A tripling of drug offenders during the 1980s and 1990s meant an increase in incarceration rates. The cost of incarcerating a drug offender is significantly higher than the cost of treatment. Providing treatment for youthful offenders remains a popular response to delinquency in the early part of the twenty-first century. Modern-day child savers continue the fight to keep juvenile delinquents in the community and out-of-home placement as a response of last resort. Additionally, specialized courts like drug courts and mental health courts seem to provide delinquents with hearings that are reminiscent of the original juvenile court (Mendiola-Washington 2012).

The parens patriae doctrine seems to remain alive in the juvenile justice system. However, the question of how to apply the doctrine justly and adequately remains constant. Effective means of dealing with offenders will always remain a topic of debate. Ensuring youth receive the necessary services will depend on contemporary juvenile justice reformers. Indeed, the history of juvenile justice in the United States is fascinating, multifaceted, and forever evolving. The next 100 years will determine if rehabilitation, parens patriae, and the best interest of the child remain integral components of the juvenile justice system.


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  11. Tanenhaus DS (2004) Juvenile justice in the making. Oxford University Press, Oxford
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  13. Williams FP, McShane MD (2009) Youth, drugs and delinquency. In: Benekos PJ, Merlo AV (eds) Controversies in juvenile justice and delinquency. Mathew Bender, Newark, pp 85–106
  14. Williams FP, McShane MD (2010) Criminological theory, 5th edn. Pearson Education, Upper Saddle River

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