Groups Propose Structure for Less Courts in Status Offense System

A flurry of resources were announced recently on standards, practices and assistance related to the handling of status-offending youth.

A voluminous collection of model standards was issued by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ), which represents the state advisory groups in each state, followed by a white paper by think tank Vera Institute of Justice on best practices for handling status offenders.

Status offenses include any legal violation that applies only to minors. Some of the most frequently committed status offenses are truancy, curfew violations, possession of alcohol, and ungovernable behavior (beyond control of parents).

In 2010, more than one-third of the 137,000 status offenses cases involved truancy, according to Vera.

A 1974 law called the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) tied federal funding for juvenile justice to a set of standards that included the deinstitutionalization of status offenders. That move helped drive the number of detentions down by 50 percent between 1974 and 1980.

In 1980, a reauthorization of the JJDPA included a new clause that allowed for valid court orders (VCO), a method by which judges could detain status offenders if they had already been ordered by a court to avoid that behavior. Recent data suggests that about 12,000 juveniles each year are detained through a VCO, and more than 6,000 of those cases ended with long-term placement in a residential facility.

CJJ released its “National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses,” a nearly 80-page collection of proposed reforms and procedures on the subject, late last week. The standards are split into four sections:

  • Responding to status offenders
  • Avoiding court involvement
  • Limiting court involvement
  • Policy and legislative recommendations

Among the pillars of the standards is a return to outright prohibition of detention in status offense cases.

“Research and evidence-based approaches have proven that secure detention of status offenders is ineffective and frequently dangerous,” the introduction to the standards says. “Given what we know, the national standards call for an absolute prohibition on the detention of status offenders and seek to divert them entirely from the delinquency system.”

A three-year phasing out of the valid court order was included in a Senate-side attempt to reauthorize of the JJPDA in 2010, which failed to make it to the Senate floor for a vote.

The Vera Institute white paper promotes one way to eliminate detention usage: taking status offense cases out of the courts entirely, and replacing court involvement with community programs. Authors Annie Salsich and Jennifer Trone argue that courts could be extricated from the process, replaced by a referral system to community options.

Salsich and Trone go on to highlight such efforts in Florida, New York, Louisiana and Washington.

Vera Institute will later this week launch its Status Offense Reform Center this week, a venture aimed at “providing guidance and tools to practitioners and policymakers interested in reforming local responses to and treatment of status offending youth and their families.”

The center is funded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation as part of the grant maker’s Models for Change Resource Center Partnership.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of The Imprint

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