Increasingly, states and localities are seeking to develop and implement strategies for safely and cost-effectively diverting youth from the juvenile justice system. Perhaps nowhere is this more necessary than in the response to, and treatment of, young people who are alleged to have committed status offenses—a range of behaviors, such as running away from home, skipping school, violating curfew, or flagrant disobedience, which are prohibited under law only because of an individual’s status as a minor. Across the country, these youth, whose actions are problematic but certainly not criminal in nature, are frequently referred to juvenile court and subject to the same punitive interventions as those charged with serious crimes. In fact, according to the most recently available national data, more than 116,000 status offense cases were processed in court in 2011, and young people in more than 8,000 of those cases spent time in a detention facility.
Both research and practice demonstrate that juvenile justice systems are often inappropriate and ill-equipped to provide the services these youth often need, and that community-based approaches to status offense behaviors are far better for families and communities. By implementing immediate and family-focused alternatives to court intervention, many states and localities nationwide have begun to reduce court caseloads, lower government costs, and provide meaningful and lasting support to children and families. As momentum builds from these efforts, a new paradigm is emerging: refer at-risk young people and their families to social service programs in their communities and keep them out of the court system whenever possible. This new paradigm is guided by the belief that families have the potential to resolve problems without the courts; they simply need guidance and support to do so.
In an era when states are rethinking their approaches to youth who commit crime, scaling back system responses to non-criminal behaviors is a necessary first step and can help lay the foundation for a less intrusive and more effective juvenile justice system.
For more background, check out the SORC white paper entitled “From Courts to Communities: The Right Response to Truancy, Running Away, and Other Status Offenses.”