The Post-Gazette's "ON THIS DATE" column recently said that 50 years ago, five youths were reprimanded in "Morals Court" for crashing a party. What was Morals Court? | You Had to Ask | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Post-Gazette's "ON THIS DATE" column recently said that 50 years ago, five youths were reprimanded in "Morals Court" for crashing a party. What was Morals Court?

Question submitted by: Celia Shapiro, Squirrel Hill

"Morals Court," eh? That must have been some party ... the kind I never get invited to, either.


So should you bring a lawyer if you decide to go anyway? Not really: In Morals Court, you were more likely to get paired up with a spiritual adviser. Established in 1918, the court was created in an attempt to handle vice crimes and other more sensitive cases -- those involving at-risk youth, vagrants, prostitutes and other key segments of the City Paper demographic.


According to a 1922 pamphlet issued by the Pittsburgh Council of Churches, which was instrumental in creating the court, the point was to "combin[e] justice under the firm hand of the law, with [help from] civic and religious agencies." At the time, Pittsburgh already had a police court that handled such offenses, but many police court magistrates could just as easily have been on the other side of the bench: Among them were a one-time bartender stripped of his license, a reputed fencer of stolen goods, and "a former prize fighter and promoter of cock-fights." Obviously, these are more suitable credentials for, say, a city councilor than a magistrate.


The idea was that instead of throwing the book at offenders, Morals Court's mayor-appointed magistrate could toss the Good Book at them -- when there was still time to help. A 1931 news account describes one ideal charge brought before the court: "A run-away boy of 16 is brought in, brown, nice, a little scared. He says he was looking for a job and admits he reads detective stories." Faced with such an incorrigible youth, the magistrate was supported with social workers from agencies like Catholic Charities or the YMCA. Morals Court was what we'd call a "faith-based initiative" today, and churches were encouraged to take on clients: The Pittsburgh Council of Churches noted that the court offered a "splendid evangelistic opportunity" for ministering to those in trouble.


But one wonders how many people in Morals Court wanted to be preached to. One 1944 account of the court in the weekly Bulletin-Index, for example, told of a 55-year-old man who suspected his 25-year-old wife of cheating on him. He followed her on an errand, "picking up a police officer en route." The officer found the woman "in flagrante delicto with a 71-year-old purported friend of her husband." (Her husband must have been too young for her.) The "friend" was fined $10, the B-I reported, while the judge "held the woman for physical examination" -- perhaps just to check her eyesight. (Unless the judge was an older gentleman as well.)


Still, as with a lot of attempts to rehabilitate criminals, people eventually tired of Morals Court's good intentions. In 1938, for example, there was public outrage when two Oakland teenagers brought before the court for threatening drivers were set free on the recommendation of a social worker ... just after they were heard predicting their release would happen. Asked then-Mayor Cornelius Scully, "Who is running the Court -- [the magistrate] or the social workers?"


I wasn't able to pinpoint when Morals Court was phased out, but its responsibilities have been assumed by the city's Magistrate's Court, a mayoral-appointed court that handles many of the old police court's functions as well. According to the state law that established the Magistrate's Court, among the cases it rules on are those involving "lewd, indecent, or lascivious behavior," prostitution, vagary, and such lowlife scum as "reputed pickpockets ... watch stuffers ... and suspicious persons who can give no reasonable account of themselves." (It's a wonder more City Paper staffers haven't appeared before the court.)


Magistrates Court may be dissolved within the year -- part of the city's attempts to resolve its budget crisis -- but the spirit of Morals Court lives on: Since 1998 Allegheny County has run a "Drug Court" that similarly tries to connect non-violent drug users with social-service agencies that can help them kick their addictions. And as fans of Patrick McFalls may remember, our justice system has ways of handling those who engage in "lascivious behavior" as well: We make them judges.

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