Study looks at kids who do time for offenses that aren’t crimes

The Texas Public Policy Foundation (TPPF) has an interesting report out on the detainment and incarceration of juveniles for “status offenses,” or offenses that wouldn’t be crimes if the juveniles were adults. (TPPF is a right-leaning think tank that has been pushing conservatives to embrace criminal justice reform.)

Status offenses could include things like truancy, curfew violations, or vaguer offenses such as “incorrigibility.” These offenses don’t directly harm anyone. Instead, they’re generally discouraged because they’re believed to lead to criminal behavior. But treating them as criminal conduct has costs, both economic costs, and the risk that introducing a kid to the “system” can inflict irreversible harm.

The study first looks at the origin of the idea that these offenses should be handled by the criminal justice system, and not, say, parents, schools, or other civil society institutions.

Status offenses, as a legal category, came about close to the turn of the past century. The founding of the nation’s earliest juvenile courts brought with it the matter of establishing their jurisdiction and differentiating the boundaries from that of the traditional criminal court. Having arisen out of the progressive movement, early juvenile courts sought to implement formal social control in order to “marry the means of educational objectives and juvenile detention.”

Under the tenets of parens patriae, these courts were empowered to place children under the care of the state if their parents were unwilling or unable to do so. This outgrowth of interventionism led to the establishment of laws seeking to expand the court’s jurisdiction over noncriminal behavior in order to better the youth.

However well-intentioned, the policy has been destructive. The good news is that after a couple decades of feeding kids into the criminal justice system for “crimes” that aren’t really crimes, over the last decade or so, we’re turning to more sensible, less destructive approaches. Here are a couple graphs from the study showing the number of kids detained and committed for status offenses:


Source: Texas Public Policy Institute
Source: Texas Public Policy Institute


Source: Texas Public Policy Institute
Source: Texas Public Policy Institute


But there’s still a long way to go. The study concludes:

The findings in this report suggest that, as a nation, while we have made significant progress in reducing confinement of status offenders, there remains a great deal of work to be done to shift away from confinement as the means of responding to these behaviors. Although the numbers of status offenders detained or committed to confinement have declined substantially since the year 2001, we estimated that nearly ten thousand youth each year are still being confined in the U.S. for offenses that would not be considered crimes if committed by an adult. Given the non-serious nature of those offenses and the fact that community based alternatives are much less-expensive, more-effective, and avoid the damage incarceration and other types of residential placement does to status offenders, the continued confinement of thousands of youth for status offending represents one of the major shortcomings of the nation’s juvenile justice systems.

More generally, we need resist the impulse to address every societal problem with the criminal justice system. It’s a blunt instrument, and especially with kids, applying it inappropriately causes a lot more harm than good.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · April 10, 2014