Skipping school, running away from home, violating curfew: these are not actions that most people imagine would land a kid in the juvenile justice system. And yet, every year, thousands of kids across the United States are handcuffed, taken to court, or locked up for just these misbehaviors—often referred to as status offenses—which are only illegal because of a kid’s status as a minor, according to a new report by the Vera Institute.
Anyone under the age of 18 is subject to status offense charges, but teenagers between the ages of 14 and 17 comprise most status offense cases, so those are the kids referred to in this report.
These behaviors may stem from a variety of factors that can range from normal adolescent development to underlying problems that need closer attention. But when families, schools, and communities don’t know what else to do, they turn to the justice system.
Common scenarios that play nationwide include: school officials calling on law enforcement when kids fight in class; police officers taking runaway kids to detention facilities when there is nowhere else to take them; and parents seeking out courts to get help for children they perceive as out of control.Such a punitive approach has detrimental consequences: it criminalizes kids for misbehaviors that pose little to no risk to public safety and may punish them for developmental changes and service needs that are beyond their control. It also disproportionately pushes kids into the system who are already underserved and more likely to be subject to biases and harsher discipline—specifically girls, kids from poor communities, kids of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming (LGBT/GNC) kids.
The justice system is not designed to support kids as they grapple with developmental changes or to address the underlying issues that may be causing them to “act out.” Instead, court involvement—and the incarceration that may follow—increases kids’ risk of engaging in future delinquent (criminal) behaviors and moving deeper into the system.
As policymakers and practitioners across the country look to reduce mass incarceration, status offenses demand attention as early and improper points of entry into the juvenile justice system, and potentially the criminal justice system more broadly.
This special report offers a primer on status offenses, including what they are and why the current approach to handling these cases is not working. It also highlights the key factors that have contributed to the cycle of kids being pushed into the system and what can be done to shift away from this punitive approach.
To read the report CLICK HERE