Juvenile Justice

VII. The Case of Status Offenses

Nowhere is the parens patriae philosophy more evident than in the juvenile justice system’s intervention with status offenders (those who committed offenses that were only deemed crimes because of the offender’s age [status]). The rationale underlying this activity is to keep kids from progressing from these minor indiscretions to actual criminal behavior. While the juvenile justice system is no longer supposed to incarcerate youths for status offenses (although there are some exceptions to this fact), the system is still involved in working with these youths. Over the course of the past 40 years, there have been increasing calls for the juvenile justice system to completely divest itself of working with status offenders.

As states choose to shift more and more youths to adult court, should it continue to exercise control over disobedient, runaway, and truant adolescents? The state of Washington has opted to eliminate jurisdiction over status offenses. Maine has written full divestiture into law. Most states have retained jurisdiction over status offenses but implemented policies of deinstitutionalization (stopped confining status offenders in state institutions). In many places, private drug treatment and mental health facilities have stepped in to fill the void that juvenile court previously occupied.

Despite such efforts, status offenses and status offenders continue to take up a considerable portion of juvenile court time and effort. In 2005, juvenile courts handled an estimated 150,600 petitioned status offense cases, an increase of over 30% since 1995. Despite more than a decade of discussion about ending juvenile court jurisdiction over status offenses, approximately 11,000 youths were adjudicated status offenders and placed in out-of-home placements in 2005 (Puzzanchera & Sickmund, 2008). Concerns over intervening with status offenders have engendered a great deal of debate about whether the juvenile justice system should divest itself of jurisdiction or not.

There are several arguments in favor of complete divestiture. First, divestiture would allow the juvenile court more time and resources to deal with juvenile delinquents— especially violent and chronic delinquents. Since the court would not have to process or supervise status offenders, probation officers, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, and correctional program employees would be able to focus on more serious delinquents. Second, the elimination of status offense jurisdiction would prevent any possible violations of the due process rights of status offenders, such as being prosecuted for very vague charges. For example, how disobedient does a child have to be before he or she is “incorrigible,” or how truant before he or she is eligible for a truancy petition? Status offense statutes typically are unclear and vague. Third, elimination of this jurisdiction would recognize the reality that juvenile courts are not adequately staffed and equipped to deal with status offenders. Most probation officers often have only bachelor’s degrees and are not qualified to do the social work and psychological counseling necessary to assist troubled teenagers and their families. Thus, status offenders should be diverted to private agencies with trained social workers and counselors who are better equipped to handle the complex problems of these youths and their families. Furthermore, eliminating juvenile court jurisdiction would force any intervention to be voluntary, which some argue is the proper way to deal with status offenders.

Another argument for elimination is that jurisdiction over status offenses has deteriorated the role of families, schools, and other agencies that traditionally handled, or should have handled, behaviors that fall under the rubric of status offense. Instead, status offense laws have allowed schools to run inadequate and boring programs that promote truancy and, in turn, blame parents and children for the problem. Instead of petitioning youths to juvenile court, schools should be improving instructional programs or offering innovative approaches such as alternative schools such as those where children attend school half a day and then work half a day for pay. In other words, prosecuting status offenders often is a blame-the-victim approach that ignores the real causes of the problems: inferior schools, ineffective parents, and insensitive communities.

Many commentators, however, believe that juvenile court jurisdiction over status offenses is both desirable and necessary. Proponents of continued jurisdiction contend that parents and schools need the court backing to impress adolescents with the need to obey their parents, attend school, and not run away from home. For example, repeal of status offense jurisdiction over truancy would remove the force of law behind compulsory education and allow youths to avoid school with no legal recourse by the schools or parents. Second, proponents of court jurisdiction argue that private agencies in the community will not handle (or will not be able to handle) all of the status offense cases if the juvenile court cannot intervene. Private agencies intervene only with willing clients, and many status offenders taken to such agencies simply refuse assistance. Moreover, some agencies do not provide the services they claim to provide.

Proponents also contend that status offenders often escalate into delinquent activity, and they note that truants are linked with the commission of a range of criminal offenses. Therefore, these proponents claim that early intervention can prevent current and future delinquency. This escalation hypothesis, however, is controversial. While some proportion of status offenders does indeed escalate or progress, most do not. Hence, it is questionable whether all status offenders should be subject to juvenile court jurisdiction. A similar argument is that many status offenders become involved in very dangerous situations that can cause serious harm to the child. For example, runaways are often found to be heavily involved in drug offenses, property crimes, and acts of prostitution to support themselves. Proponents of court jurisdiction argue that it might prevent some children from running away and becoming involved in associated dangerous behaviors. A related argument is that since states intervene with adults to protect them from harmful behavior (such as drug use), the state should protect juveniles from the harmful consequences of their actions.

Another argument in favor of continued jurisdiction is that it prevents status offenders from being processed as delinquents. That is, where divestiture has occurred, there is some evidence that states have turned to treating status offenders as minor delinquents. There is concern that total removal of status offense jurisdiction from juvenile court may weaken the argument regarding why there should be a juvenile court at all. Instead, it may be possible to just move “delinquents” to the adult criminal court. The removal of status offense jurisdiction, with a concentration on delinquency only, may lead to a view of the juvenile court as concerned with crime only and, hence, a belief that adult criminal courts can exercise that function. Thus, removal of status offense jurisdiction may very well be the beginning of the end of the juvenile court.

Unlike a decade ago, the emphasis is not so much on the status offender as a distinct problem, but on those risk factors that can lead to serious, violent, or chronic delinquency. Attention to reducing risk factors and enhancing protective factors is considered to be the way to prevent such problematic delinquency. The juvenile justice system can play a strong role in addressing risk factors and encouraging activities that assist status offenders.

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