A new report released by the Vera Institute of Justice reveals the detrimental consequences of status offenses on youth on probation.
In Just Kids: When Misbehaving is a Crime, Mahsa Jafarian and Vidhya Ananthakrishnan describe how status offenses unfairly criminalize young people and increase the likelihood of youth partaking in more serious criminal activity. They provide recommendations to keep youth in their communities and away from incarceration.
In 2014, there were 100,100 cases nationally in which kids were sent to court for status offenses, according to the report. This issue is important as Congress considers reauthorizing the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), which could potentially phase-out the valid court order (VCO) part of the law. The VCO exception allows youth to be detained for status offenses under certain conditions.
Status offenses vary across states but generally fall under five categories: truancy, running away, rebellious behavior, underage drinking and curfew violations. Youth can be referred to court for a status offense by law enforcement, probation officers, their families and their schools.
Jafarian and Ananthakrishnan argue that these status offenses criminalize youth for misbehaviors committed during a time of developmental changes in their life.
Delinquency and misbehaving peak in mid-to-late adolescence and decline during a youth’s twenties. Kids engage in acts of teenage rebellion as part of exploratory risky behaviors that help them assess social, personal, and familial boundaries.
Jafarian and Ananthakrishnan suggest that youth misbehavior can also signal underlying issues that may deserve closer attention. For example, truancy and acting out may be the result of academic anxiety, helping out a younger sibling at home or unmet mental health or special education needs.
Court involvement increases kids’ risk of engaging in future delinquent behaviors and hinders opportunities for youth to receive community support. According to the report, kids who receive services in their homes and communities are able to strengthen family functions, improve their behavioral health and are less likely to re-offend.
Earlier this month, The Chronicle of Social Change reported that both the Senate and the House of Representatives have moved ahead with legislation that would reauthorize the JJDPA, a law that established national standards for how juvenile offenders are treated.
Under the JJDPA, youth and families in juvenile and criminal courts have several protections, including the provision that youth with status offenses should be handled with less restrictive, community-based programs.
The current version of the law includes the valid court order (VCO) exception, a loophole that allows youth to be detained for status offenses if they are in violation of a court order.
For instance, although youth cannot be detained for truancy, youth can be sent to court for violating a judge’s court order to attend school every day.
According to the report, 27 states used the VCO exception in 2011.
Now, this exception is being debated in Congress. According to a report in The Chronicle of Social Change, the version of the bill supported by the House of Representatives excluded the VCO exception, while the Senate bill preserved it. The two bills are now in conference to resolve differences. If a compromise can be reached, the legislation will be sent to the desk of the president.
The JJDPA is not the only way states can pursue reforms related to status offenses. Connecticut is one example. Among its efforts are ending the use of detention for youth who have violated court orders and implementing Act 07-4 in 2007, which funded a network of family support centers throughout the state to better serve the needs of youth in delinquency courts.
Data from the Connecticut Court Services reported the number of status offenders detained in Connecticut has dropped by 70 percent since 2006.
Authors urge juvenile justice stakeholders to approach youth with an understanding of a child’s development and needs. They recommend that teachers, officers and social workers be trained on gender and gender expression, systemic bias and trauma.
Other recommendations include eliminating court as an option for status offense cases and developing weekly mentoring check-ins and in-home family therapy programs rather than incarceration.
Read the full report here.