AUSTIN – Confinement rates of status offenders – behavior that is considered criminal based solely on the age of the offender – continue to decline across the nation, according to a new report released today by the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Yet despite this promising trend, the criminalization of status offenses, which include non-violent behaviors like running away from home, truancy and curfew violations, continues to introduce far too many kids to the juvenile justice system.
According to the report, Kids Doing Time for What’s Not a Crime: The Over-Incarceration of Status Offenders, the number of confined status offenders decreased by 52 percent from 2001 to 2011. This decline has kept pace with nationwide progress in reducing youth incarceration for all offenses since 2000, and accelerated from 2010 to 2011.
“The over-incarceration of young people for status offenses is one of the major shortcomings of our juvenile justice system,” said Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. “Though we’ve seen progress in reducing reliance on incarceration for these behaviors, far too many youth are placed in secure detention for crimes that pose no threat to public safety. This punishment not only fails to fit the crime, it increases the likelihood that teens will grow up to be serious offenders.”
Progress in reducing confinement for status offenses has been marred by an amendment to the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Act that provided judicial authority to place youth in secure detention for violating a valid court order (VCO). The VCO exception, used in 33 states in 2011, has opened the door to further criminalization of status offenses. In 2010, the last year for which data is available, more than 8,200 youth were placed in secure detention for violating a court order, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Because the Census does not distinguish detainees confined as a result of the VCO exception from other technical violations, our progress in reducing confinement for status offenses is likely overestimated.
The report also examines newly available data to assess our nation’s progress in reducing confinement of status offenders since the passage of the JJDP Act in 1974. Given the findings, the report recommends reforms that shift away from the reliance on the juvenile justice system and toward more cost-effective community programs better equipped to treat the underlying causes of status offenses. These state policy reforms include:
- Severely limiting incarceration of status offenders in states that allow detention for violations of a valid court order only when kids pose a high-risk of violence that cannot be addressed by alternatives and have a prior non-status offense on their record.
- Prioritizing families as well as educational, mental health, and child welfare systems as a primary resource to adjusting behaviors, including when an unsuitable home environment exists.
- Re-directing the cost-savings of alternatives to incarceration to support proven approaches to dealing with delinquent youth.
- Re-examining the scope of status offenses to not criminalize conduct that does not warrant criminal sanctions.
“Incarceration is the last place where many of these youth should be,” added Levin. “Many status offenders lack support networks, come from broken homes or have mental health needs that contribute to these behaviors. Instead of placing these youth in confinement, policies and practices should help youth adjust their behaviors through community based treatment programs that can equip them with the support and tools they need into adulthood.”
The decline in youth incarceration for status offenses was particularly impressive from 1985 to 1997, when the number of confined status offenders bucked the nationwide increase in residential placement for other offenses. Today, juvenile courts are diverting a higher percentage of cases away from confinement compared to the 1990s. However, the number of status offense cases sent to courts remains high and an estimated 10,000 youth are confined each year for non-violent offenses.
The Texas Public Policy Foundation is a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.
Marc Levin is the Director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.
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