Violating curfew, running away from home, or skipping school may not be good choices, but are they actions that should land a minor in the justice system? Perspectives tend to differ.
These actions are considered status offenses. A status offense is a noncriminal act that is considered a law violation only because of a youth's status as a minor. They can include:
Truancy is excessive unexcused school day absences. The term “excessive” varies by school district and being tardy too often may also count as truancy.
When a minor leaves home without permission from a parent or guardian, they are termed a runaway. Even if a child is thrown out of their house, they can be considered a runaway if the law so chooses.
Being ungovernable is a catch-all term used for kids who repeatedly defy the rules given to them by parents, legal custodians, teachers, or guardians. Ungovernable behavior or unruliness includes many other offenses.
Underage drinking is defined as consuming alcohol by those under the age of 21. It depends on the state, but underage drinking can either be a status offense or a delinquency act.
Kids under a certain age who are out and about during specific hours can be charged with curfew violations. The guidelines vary, but generally curfew violations are more likely to occur in communities that have noise ordinances or where there are pockets of delinquent activity.
Minor status infractions are often due to typical teenage behavior, but status infractions can extend to a kid’s underlying problem. When schools, communities, and parents feel they have no other alternatives, they tend to turn to police action and the juvenile justice system instead of unveiling these deeply rooted problems.
Penalties for status offenses vary from state to state. Usual penalties can include suspending the juvenile’s driver’s license, required fines or restitution, putting the offender in a foster or group home, or ordering counseling and enrollment in after-school education programs. Though some penalties are harsher than others, the effect of having an offense on one’s record is still devastating.
Trends in Status Offenses
Over 50 years ago, the juvenile justice system initially handled status offenses, and strict punishment was administered. In the 1970s, states began to view status offenses as warning signals that an adolescent needed supervision or other types of assistance to avoid recidivism. How true this still is! Research proves that status offenses often lead to later delinquency.
In 1974, the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act deinstitutionalized status offenses. Prosecutors now could remove status offense cases from juvenile court and turn them toward other agencies that would provide services to at-risk juveniles. Currently, states call status offenders “children or juveniles in need of supervision, services, or care.
States tend to refer a child who commits a status offense to the state’s child welfare agency before incarcerating or detaining at-risk kids. The agency may begin the use of residential placement for offenders, community-based programs, and state-sponsored or private therapy programs. More states are enlisting the services of probation officers and social workers.
However, if these programs fail to fix the problem, an offending teen will be referred to juvenile court. Once placed in the juvenile court system, at-risk youth will be “watched,” and any infraction could land them in a detention center.
Therefore, it is extremely important to make sure a status offender is referred to a program with proven results. Research shows that using community-based programs significantly improve outcomes and can influence an adolescent to be a positive member of society—juveniles who receive help in their own homes and schools can build connections to families and support systems while still going to school, work, and after-school activities. Multisystemic Therapy (MST) is one community-based approach that is approved in many states. MST is a scientific, evidence-based therapy proven to transform the lives of troubled youth and their families.
For more related content, visit our Juvenile Justice Reform Resource page by clicking here.