Juvenile Status Offenses-Incarceration or Intercession?

In our last post, we examined the confidentiality of juvenile records and the various state procedures available to seal or expunge them.  As noted, the public does not have access to these records once sealed,  but law enforcement and court personnel do retain unfettered access.  If the juvenile record includes acts considered felonious if committed by an adult, that record will likely remain unsealed.   But what of acts deemed illegal only because of the offender’s status as a juvenile?  How are these “status offenses” defined legally?

Status offenses are acts that would not be considered illegal if committed by an adult.  Examples include truancy, running away, violating curfew, and the possession and use of alcohol or cigarettes   (or marijuana in states where individual purchase and consumption are legal).   Of course status offenses may be defiant or disobedient acts, but they are not necessarily criminal (with the possible exception of controlled substance violations).   Some states also include “incorrigible” or “ungovernable” behavior as conduct rising to the level of a status offense; in these jurisdictions the juvenile is considered beyond the control of the parent(s) or guardian(s).

So how does the legal system respond to status offenders?  Traditionally, these offenders were processed through the juvenile justice system, along with their criminally delinquent peers.  In the 1970s, there was growing recognition that status offenders should be diverted from juvenile court jurisdiction and consequent correctional confinement.  The federal 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDP) advanced the notion of decriminalizing status offenses and reducing the incidence of status offender detention.  With passage of this Act, broad consensus emerged that these juveniles should not be treated as criminal offenders and that other governmental or community service agencies could offer superior placement and rehabilitation options.

Regardless, national reform of this magnitude moves slowly and incrementally.  In 1980, the JJDP was amended to allow limited confinement of juveniles (typically truants and runaways) who repeatedly disobeyed court orders.  Known as the “Valid Court Order” exception (VCO), a status offender could be placed in a detention or correctional facility and also be adjudicated as a delinquent if found in violation of a VCO.  While this exception seems contrary to the goal of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Protection Act-to prevent the detention of juveniles and the stigmatizing label of “delinquent” for noncriminal behavior-many judges felt they needed a mechanism to penalize chronic status offenders.  Consequently, thousands of these juveniles have been incarcerated under VCOs in multiple states.

As Judge Michael Nash noted in his op-ed piece on October 14, 2013 in Juvenile Justice Exchange, Ideas and Opinions:

“…The VCO is still in effect in most states, but there are significant efforts to eliminate it if and when Congress reauthorizes the JJDPA, which it has not done since 2002. There are good reasons for this, and there are positive developments in this area.

First, there is considerable research that has been done on adolescent brain development. We know that adolescents are different from adults. Adolescents are characterized by greater risk taking or sensation seeking and lesser ability to control impulses and resist pressure from peers and less likely to think ahead. We also know that as the brain develops and individuals mature into adulthood, these characteristics will decrease. Further, although holding youth accountable is important, it must be done in a way that does not harm them and endanger their normal development.

In accordance with the above, research shows that responses such as secure detention of status offenders is ineffective and potentially dangerous. Rather than punish them, youth, particularly status offenders, are better served by being diverted from the justice system. When you couple that with community programs that include engagement of youth and their families as well as programs designed to meet their specific needs, the chances of achieving positive outcomes for youth and their communities are greatly enhanced…”

In addition to the studies on adolescent brain development impacting behavior, there is abundant data concluding that at-risk youth are more likely to commit status offenses-those who are homeless, from a broken or dysfunctional home, or who suffer from mental, physical or educational disabilities.   Diverting these status offenders from the juvenile justice system to alternative agency, community, family, and treatment services will promote local social ties, and avoid the isolation of detention and exposure to serious offenders in juvenile confinement.   If alternative placement is necessary, state or local child welfare services may be able to place the juvenile with a relative, foster home, or residential home, and offer additional counseling, educational, or rehabilitative support.

To view information about how juvenile offenders are adjudicated or diverted in your area, find your state on CourtReference, then select the “Self Help and Legal Research” court resource category to locate links to your local juvenile justice system.


One thought on “Juvenile Status Offenses-Incarceration or Intercession?

  1. Allison Williams Esq.

    This is a long debate and has always been sensitive. Children are innocent and they make a lot of mistakes. I think a more positive approach will be to look deeper into the environments they are brought up in and focus on removing the factors that will lead them into doing things they shouldn’t. An overall effort to give our children a safer and secure childhood should be our objective.


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