Juvenile Status Offenders Research Paper

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One definition of a juvenile status offense is conduct ‘‘illegal only for children.’’ A second is noncriminal misbehavior. Juvenile status offenders are youths of juvenile court age who violate laws that define how young people should behave. These misbehaviors are unlawful for children, but not unlawful for adults. It is the status of childhood that allows children to be the subject of a status offense.

Status offenders are habitual truants from school, runaways, or those considered incorrigible or beyond the control of their parents. They can be brought before a juvenile or family court judicial officer since state laws have proscribed these misbehaviors. Adults who drop out of college, drop out of society, or regularly flout their parents’ rules or desires cannot be brought before a court. Laws do not ban such adult activities or allow for court sanctioning.

Juvenile status offenses also include the violation of a curfew hour that applies only to young people under a certain age. Their presence in a public setting after a certain hour, except when the activity is expressly permitted by a curfew law, subjects them to sanctioning. Another status offense is tobacco use or possession. Adults may smoke, juveniles may not. Alcohol possession or use is a status offense, as well, though this offense requires a partial redefinition. This ban applies to youths above juvenile court age and who are under twenty-one years of age. Adults may drink alcohol; young people under twenty-one may not.

Juvenile status offenders are distinguished from juvenile delinquent offenders. Status offenders have not committed an act that would be a crime if committed by an adult; delinquent youths have committed such an act. A theft or robbery by a juvenile is a violation of a criminal statute that applies to juveniles and adults. A juvenile violator is classified as a juvenile delinquent offender. An adult violator is classified as a criminal offender. A theft or robbery is a law violation, not a status offense.

A final status offense is gun possession by a minor. Adults may generally possess guns; juveniles may not. However, the use of a gun in the commission of a crime is an offense that applies to juveniles and adults.

Juvenile status offenses are distinguished from the child abuse, neglect, and dependency jurisdiction of a juvenile or family court. This type of matter requires judicial system protection for children receiving harmful care.

In 1997, status offenses constituted 13 percent of juvenile court case filings nationally, compared with 68 percent for delinquency filings, 15 percent for child-victim filings, and 4 percent for other filings.

Historical Antecedents

The establishment of the juvenile court in 1899 reflected a recognition that children and youths were different from adults and should be treated differently by courts and correctional agencies. They were seen as immature, less capable of criminal intent in their lawbreaking, given to numerous violations that were natural to growing up in American society, and in need of disciplined guidance that could avert a criminal career. The expectation was that court-arranged interventions would protect dependent children from becoming delinquents, would prevent incorrigible youths from becoming delinquent, and constrain delinquents from becoming adult criminals.

Precepts directing children’s obedience to parents go back to antiquity, to early Roman and Greek cultures, to the Fifth Commandment of the Hebrew Old Testament, and to directives of other Near Eastern civilizations. More recently, little solicitude was shown children in Europe and early America. Children were apprenticed at an early age, which often led to exploitation, beatings, and aborted opportunities to enter mainstream life. Children were loved or ignored, treated with care or harshly, without state or child advocacy organization interventions. A high death rate among children contributed to a certain history of indifference. With exceptions, the modern concept of childhood had not yet been discovered within a broad cross-section of society.

During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, interest in improving child-rearing practices began taking shape. Church and school officials promoted the dual precepts that children were special and fragile, but also corruptible and trying. The church, the family, the community, and the school were to join in fostering their development and controlling misbehaviors. Principles emerged that stressed discipline, modesty, chastity, hard work, and obedience to authority. Such Puritan values were very influential but not universal in the North American colonies. There was an interest in helping the poor who helped themselves, scorning others who were without motivation and urging a conforming, industrious life.

The Massachusetts ‘‘stubborn child’’ offense, still current into the 1970s, arose in the year 1654 when the House of Deputies of the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay in New England determined that children indeed misbehaved and treated authority figures with little or no respect, and the colony provided corporal punishment such as whipping for offenders.

The Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 authorized the incorporation of these and other early laws into the statutes of the Commonwealth. Over time, simplifying amendments were made, but as late as 1971, the state’s Supreme Judicial Court upheld the stubborn child statute against a complaint that the statute was so vague and indefinite as to violate constitutional due process requirements (Commonwealth v. Brother, Supreme Court of Massachusetts, 270 N.E. 2d 389 (Mass.), 1971).

The creation of the U.S. Constitution, the nineteenth-century promulgation of Enlightenment philosophy, and the promise of human fulfillment and progress brought a more hopeful and positive attitude toward helping the downtrodden and the deviant, with greater focus on the conditions that contributed to poor adjustment. Nevertheless, children commonly were held, not helped, in impoverished almshouses and sentenced regularly to degrading jails where they lived side by side with adult inmates. Beginning about 1825 in more urban centers, specialized institutions were founded, such as orphan asylums for abandoned children and houses of refuge for runaway, disobedient, or vagrant young people and lesser juvenile criminals. Later, industrial (training) schools for young juvenile law violators and reformatories for youthful criminals were established often in rural areas. But jailing remained common. None of these approaches were found to be panaceas. Prior to 1899, juvenile law violators and status offenders were punishable as adults, though some institutions had been initiated to house juveniles only. The creation of the juvenile court in 1899 was intended to offer new hope for saving children. Juvenile court statutes defined delinquency to include numerous status offenses.

Accurate early data of official handling of status offense misbehaviors are difficult to come by. An examination of archival data of the offenses recorded for juveniles committed to the Wisconsin State Reform School in the pre-juvenile court decades of 1880–1889 and 1890–1899 found 50 percent and 40 percent of inmates, respectively, had been committed for ‘‘incorrigibility and vagrancy,’’ the former offense far outnumbering the latter. Further, Milwaukee Juvenile Court records for 1908–1911 reflected significant numbers of incorrigibility, certain truancy and vagrancy, and considerable numbers of disorderly conduct and disorderly person offenses along with high percentages of larceny and burglary.

The first reports of the initial American juvenile court, in Cook county (Chicago), Illinois, found more than 50 percent of delinquency cases were in fact the status offenses of disorderly behavior, ‘‘immorality,’’ vagrancy, truancy, and incorrigibility. Juvenile court data for Los Angeles for 1920 reported 220 petitions against girls, 90 percent of them for status or other noncriminal offenses. Interestingly, their working-class parents referred nearly half of the girls. Sixty-three percent of the girls were accused of sexual activity and more than half of these tested positive for venereal infection during their pre- or post-court stay in the detention center.

The Breadth of Proscribed Behaviors

Early juvenile court codes enacted far more status offenses than those described above. The term ‘‘status offense’’ had not been created. The more contemporary distinction between a status offender and a delinquent had not been drawn. A status offense was a delinquent offense. There was no differentiation or restriction as to what a judge could do with a status offender compared with a delinquent. The judge could send an incorrigible child off to a state institution as readily as a chronic or severe law violator.

Code makers sought to regulate juvenile activities and bolster parental and societal control efforts with a juvenile court. Though the juvenile court was intended as a humane and rehabilitative instrument, its authority and powers were nonetheless awesome. The sweep of these codes was enormously wide.

For example, the South Dakota Juvenile Court Act, current for half a century and finally repealed in 1968, banned such juvenile misbehaviors as incorrigibility or intractability, association with ‘‘thieves, vicious, or immoral persons,’’ absence from home, growing up in idleness or crime, repeated truancy, frequenting a house of ill repute, visiting a place where gaming devices are operated, frequenting a saloon, patronizing a billiard room, patronizing a wine-room or dance hall connected with or adjacent to a house of ill-fame or saloon, frequenting with a person of the opposite sex at a place where liquors may be purchased after 9 p.m., going to a secluded place with one of the opposite sex at nighttime, wandering about the streets in the nighttime without being on lawful business, writing or using vile, obscene, vulgar, profane or indecent language, smoking cigarettes or using tobacco in any form, drinking liquors other than at home, and being ‘‘guilty of indecent, immoral, or lascivious conduct.’’

These proscriptions constituted violations of law applicable to children. Juvenile violators of these status offenses were charged, along with juvenile violators of such crimes as burglary and larceny and assault, as juvenile delinquents. The violation of a status offense was perceived as a crime committed by a juvenile.

Other juvenile codes contained many of the banned misbehaviors set forth in the South Dakota code. The court’s powers over conduct illegal only for children as well as juvenile law violations was meant to be exercised to provide the care, custody, and discipline nearly equivalent to that which should have been given by the parents. As the 1907 Colorado statute provided, any delinquent child ‘‘shall be treated, not as a criminal, but as misdirected and misguided, and needing aid, encouragement, help and assistance.’’

Juvenile court advocates, past and present, have contended that much good was done for young people and their communities by juvenile court interventions. However, court youths and their families in numerous juvenile courts, along with informed observers, have questioned for at least four decades whether the rhetoric of juvenile court was matched by the reality of implementation. Indeed, many youths were not helped, and some sustained harm from the intervention.

Juvenile courts early adopted informal handling approaches for use both with certain status and law violation offenders. The youths were placed on informal supervision or referred to external agency services in lieu of formal court handling. Status offenders represented a significant part of both informal and formal juvenile court workloads.

Juveniles court practices received little evaluation or critical examination until about 1960. These courts were informal hearing chambers. Lawyers found it difficult to practice in this judge-dominated setting, which was basically bereft of law or procedure. Many judges were not lawyers. Court probation officers held strong powers and were major influences on judicial decision-making. No serious questions were raised as to whether status offense youths should be differentiated from other youths who had violated criminal laws.

Separation of Noncriminal Conduct from Delinquent Conduct

In 1961, the California legislature was the first to remove noncriminal conduct from its delinquency definition. The new section 601 of its Welfare and Institutions Code, relating to the status offense child, was differentiated from section 602, the delinquent child. Section 601 sought to eliminate or otherwise make more difficult the commitment of a status offense youngster to a state delinquency institution.

Legislative reforms regarding status offenders often took place within a context of broader concerns and reforms of juvenile justice. The California legislature enacted copious code revisions due to concerns over the sweep of juvenile court jurisdiction, the unbridled discretion of officials, the absence of legal safeguards, excessive locking-up practices, and the stigma that flowed from being a court youth. California revisions were a harbinger of what was to follow.

A year later, New York took a related action. It created a new status offense category entitled ‘‘persons in need of supervision’’ (PINS), and prohibited commitment of these youths to delinquency institutions, though a shortage of alternative resources later led to an amendment that reauthorized such commitments.

Illinois created a separate category in 1965, ‘‘minor otherwise in need of supervision’’ (MINS). Colorado followed suit in 1967 with ‘‘child in need of supervision’’ (CHINS), joined by Florida, which chose the same title but the acronym CINS. In time, virtually every state moved in this direction. Georgia enacted the separate category of ‘‘unruly child,’’ New Jersey followed suit with ‘‘juvenile in need of supervision’’ ( JINS), and Montana named its new category ‘‘youth in need of supervision’’ (YINS). Several states, such as Pennsylvania and Florida, eliminated status offenses from their delinquency definition, rejected creation of a separate category, and placed these matters within the scope of the ‘‘dependent child’’ classification.

The dependency label, like the subsequently relabeled New Jersey category, ‘‘juvenile-family crisis,’’ underscores the view that for status offenders, the family and home, not only the child, must be a focus of assessment and attention. It is known, for example, that numerous runaways escape for sexual or physical abuse; accordingly, they are better perceived as victims rather than as offenders.

Constraints on Judicial Powers

In 1965 a U.S. Children’s Bureau compilation of local juvenile court cases in the mid-1960s found noncriminal cases constituted at least 26 percent of cases coming to court. Overall, a higher percentage of girls than boys had been charged in this fashion. The bureau’s summary review of fifteen to twenty juvenile correctional institutions showed about 30 percent of residents had been committed on this basis. Its study of ten detention programs, local and state, showed that 48 percent of the 9,500 youths studied had not committed adult criminal acts. Of the 1,300 of these youths who had been held in adult jails pending hearings, 40 percent fell into the noncriminal category. Of the 8,200 of these youths who had been held in juvenile centers, 50 percent were in this category. One state reported in 1965 that 39 percent of children brought to its juvenile courts had been charged with noncriminal conduct.

Other studies reported that 45 to 55 percent of children committed to state delinquency institutions were status offenders, and that in the early 1970s, 60 to 70 percent of all girls ordered into these facilities had not committed criminal acts.

Reports such as these fueled concern that status offenders were being treated unfairly and should be handled differently than juvenile law violators. These concerns fused with the accelerating recognition that juvenile court intervention often failed, was not always benign, not infrequently led to abusive institutional or jail experiences, handicapped the way schools and employers and the military viewed these youths, was bereft of legal safeguards, and should be constrained.

In 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court issued a seminal decision that had immense impact on juvenile courts, including the handling of status offenders. In In re Gault it held that the juvenile court’s procedures failed to meet constitutional standards of due process. Accordingly, children, like adults, must be afforded the right to counsel and to free counsel when a deprivation of freedom might occur. Other criminal court guarantees such as specific notice of charges, the privilege against self-incrimination, and the right to confront one’s accusers, were mandated. One result of Gault was a sharp increase in defense lawyers in this setting. Attorneys proceeded to challenge numerous juvenile court practices, including those related to status offenders.

In the same year another major influence, the Report of the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, also sought to restructure juvenile courts to deal with more serious delinquency and to funnel less serious violations back to community agencies. It held special concern for the category of conduct considered illegal only for children. ‘‘This should be substantially circumscribed so that it ceases to include such acts as smoking, swearing, and disobedience to parents and comprehends only acts such as experimenting with drugs, repeatedly becoming pregnant out of wedlock, and being habitually truant from school. Serious consideration, at the least, should be given to complete elimination of the court’s power over children for non-criminal conduct.’’

The commission embraced a consultant paper prepared for its delinquency task force that faulted the unexamined assumptions that these misbehaviors are precursors to delinquency, the lack of common meaning from one jurisdiction to another, or between different judges’ ruling in the same jurisdiction, the absence of fixed criteria, and the assignment of criminal responsibility to children in many instances where blame or responsibility cannot be determined or where closer investigation would reveal their actions to have been reasonably normal responses to highly provocative or intolerable situations.

A second influential national report, promulgated in 1973 by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, took two noteworthy positions: (1) the determination of delinquency should be reserved for a youth whose act, if committed by an adult, would constitute a criminal offense, and (2) only these delinquent youths should be eligible for commitment to institutions for delinquent children. The commission expressly avoided taking a position whether noncriminal conduct should be within the jurisdiction of a juvenile court.

These reports impacted the Federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act ( JJ&DP, Public Law 93–415, as amended) of 1974, which, following a grace period, banned states that accepted funding from institutionalizing status offense juveniles in state delinquency facilities. A second provision fundamentally banned their lock-up in pretrial detention facilities, although an allowance was made for brief detention under certain conditions. Most states entered into this program, and their legislatures responded to enact laws that complied overall with these requirements. Implementation of this act significantly changed court handling of status offenders.

The juvenile justice system underwent a process that has been described as the four Ds: (1) Decriminalization, that is, taking status offenders out from delinquency definitions and constraining court authority with these youths; (2) Diversion from the court of lesser offenders, including status offenders; (3) Due process implementations at all processing stages; and (4) Deinstitutionalization of status offenders and delinquents in concert with some expansion of communitybased institutional alternative programs.

As states moved to constrain the locking-up of status offenders, both at pretrial and postdispositional stages, related practices changed. Law enforcement officers were less willing to arrest runaways because the juvenile justice system would not lock up these youths, but instead would place them in a staff-secure, unlocked shelter care facility from which they could run away again. Police officers sometimes chose to apprehend a runaway not for that status, but upon the discovery of drug use or a petty theft, that is, a delinquency violation. Further, courts narrowed their entry doors since status offenders, if formally processed, could require the government to pay the cost of a lawyer and because secure institutionalization could not be an outcome of continuing defiance.

By 1980, there was growing interest in schools handling their own truancy problems, in families turning to community agency services and not to the courts, and, for example, in authorizations for courts other than juvenile courts to handle youthful alcohol violations. States reflected idiosyncratic approaches. Kentucky and Hawaii reported significantly higher rates of formal court handling of status offenders in 1993 than, for example, California and Illinois. With exceptions, urban juvenile courts increasingly confined their formal case processing to more chronic and more severe delinquents. Also with exceptions, suburban and rural juvenile courts often maintained significant status offender workloads, as other agency services were limited or did not particularly embrace these youths. Overall, community agencies did not pick up the slack of diminished court interest.

Over time, lawmakers shut down much of what juvenile courts had done earlier with status offenders. Pressures were placed on juvenile courts to find ways to use their authority to obtain control over these youths. One device known as ‘‘bootstrapping’’ gained currency in some courts. The initial status offense could not result in a freedom deprivation, but a judge would then prescribe rules of conduct. A status reoffense could, however, result in a civil contempt finding and placement in a nearby secure detention center. Bootstrapping was legitimated by amendment to the federal JJ&DP Act, and known as violation of a valid court order. States could still receive their federal moneys when secure detention was ordered via this mechanism.

Legal challenges to state jurisdiction over status offenders and juvenile court powers occurred in numerous states and resulted in conflicting outcomes. For example, a definition such as ‘‘beyond the control of his parents’’ was held to provide sufficient notice of impermissible behavior. Definitions of habitual disobedience and habitual truancy were upheld. Taking court jurisdiction for incorrigibility did not represent cruel and unusual punishment for children. Allowing status offense jurisdiction for girls up to an age older than for boys was disallowed. A single act of disobedience did not constitute beyond the control of one’s parents. Curfew ordinances were approved or disapproved as to due process and equal protection of the laws depending upon their breadth and exceptions allowed. A parent in conflict with a child could not waive the child’s right to counsel. A youth with fifty unauthorized school absences could not be committed to a state delinquency facility. While a status offender could not be committed to a delinquency institution, the youth could be committed to a training school designed exclusively for status offenders.

Senator Arlen Specter, the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Juvenile Justice of the U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary, wrote that at the time of the passage of the JJ&DP Act in 1974, close to 200,000 nondelinquent juveniles were held annually in secure confinement across the country. By 1981, however, this number had been reduced by 82 percent in the participating jurisdictions and 35 states were in full compliance with the deinstitutionalization mandate of the act.

There is some evidence that institutionalization of status offenders continues in a different form. Besides bootstrapping, two approaches are sometimes taken. The first involves a status offense by a delinquent youth who is on probation, since this misbehavior is proscribed by official probation conditions and the probation grant may be revoked. Data show this involves girls more often than boys. The second approach occurs with the substitution of other institutional settings, such as mental health institutions, treatment-oriented residential programs, and even drug treatment facilities. Data show that children of color are more often involved in the first approach, ending in public facilities, while white children more frequently end up in treatment in private facilities.

Status Offender Escalation to Delinquent Offender

There has been ongoing debate as to whether status offenders, with their defiance of authority or control, have more in common with lawviolating delinquent youths, or with typical adolescents who experience conflict with authority figures in sorting out who they are becoming.

Examination of different studies of status offender careers has not found significant escalation into more serious law violations. Status offenders, like delinquent law violators, reoffend frequently, but their reoffenses are most often another status offense. Where there is an escalation, it is more often a charge of a misdemeanor, rather than a felony. Chronicity, rearrest five times or more, is very infrequent.

There is recognition that myriad delinquents have truancy backgrounds and that numerous delinquencies are committed by truants during the hours they should be in school. This is not to say there is a clear line of escalation from truancy to delinquency or serious delinquency.

In 1992, girls represented 42 percent of status offense cases, but just 15 percent of delinquency cases filed. Fifty-seven percent of arrests for running away from home during 1996 involved girls. While girls’ delinquencies have increased in recent years, no study has shown a significant female escalation from status offender to delinquent. Male status offenders are more likely to reoffend and escalate, but ‘‘most of these males will not become hardened offenders’’ (Shelden et al.).

Current Issues Regarding Status Offenders

Status offense issues were not a prominent topic in juvenile justice in the early to mid 1990s. Violent crimes committed by youths, particularly homicides and other gun crimes, preempted debate and policy redirection. But certain areas remain a focus of attention.

On the surface, juvenile homicides appear to be a distant issue from noncriminal misbehaviors. But this is not so. Lawmaking bodies have expanded juvenile curfew laws. If juveniles are off the street, troubles are fewer. A violation provides justification for apprehension, if a police officer wants to make an arrest in the absence of a criminal-type law violation. Arrests of juvenile curfew violators increased 21 percent between 1995 and 1996, and 116 percent between 1992 and 1996; nearly three of four arrests involved a boy. What remains to be determined is the extent to which curfew laws reduce criminal conduct, and at what expense in police enforcement.

Another concentration is on the prevention of delinquency. The aftermath of school-related slayings by juveniles, such as the mass murders at Columbine High School in Littleton Colorado, brought a national soul-searching and determination to find ways to strengthen family life and the capabilities of children and youths to lead self- and community-fulfilling lives. Schools have been urged to counsel and refer young people with apparent adjustment problems to youth or family service agencies. Anti-truancy programs have accelerated and police interactions with truants are more visible. Assessment centers and other places where police can take truants, curfew violators, and runaway youths to reconnect with their parents or connect with human service agencies have became more popular. Court proceedings in some form are more likely with juvenile smokers due to extensive concerns over addiction to tobacco.

There is increased interest in early court intervention in the lives of delinquent youths and status offenders. There are more calls to relax the ban on secure confinement of status offenders. The perception that intervention with these youths is an inherent good and will prevent later serious offending is gaining currency again.

Returning to the four Ds, two may be in jeopardy. Diversion of status offenders may occur less. Since criminal courts now handle more serious delinquents, juvenile courts may reopen their doors to more status offenders as these courts search for a revised rehabilitation role. Deinstitutionalization may be jeopardized. Pressures to lock up these status offense youths ‘‘for their own good’’ are very strong. The counterargument—that instead of locking up status offenders, more resources are needed—is an attractive one. But throughout juvenile court history, there have never been enough, much less effective, resources.


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