Incarcerating Juvenile Status Offenders

April 2, 2014

Juvenile "status" offenders are youth who commit an act that is only considered criminal because of their age. That is, were the juvenile an adult, his behavior would not be considered criminal. These types of offenses include truancy, running away from home, incorrigibility, curfew violations, and alcohol and tobacco consumption. States should make attempts to reduce confinement for these status offenses and instead employ alternative punishments, say Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice, and Derek Cohen, policy analyst, at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

  • Confinement is expensive. In 2012, the state of Texas spent $366.88 per day per youth in juvenile detention facilities.
  • It can also be ineffective, if not counterproductive. When troubled youth are placed in detention facilities, they are placed in close quarters with non-status offenders, putting them in jeopardy of developing antisocial behavior and being incarcerated later for a more serious offense.

To assess the confinement of status offenders between 2001 and 2011, Levin and Cohen looked at the Census count of committed status youth and compared it with numbers reported by the states.

  • Census data alone cannot give a full picture of committed youth because it reports the numbers of youth in confinement simply at the time of the Census. Thus, the 2011 Census reported youth in confinement for status offenses during October 2011.
  • Status offenders do not remain in confinement for a full year. In fact 60 percent of status offenders reported in the 2011 Census had been in confinement for three months or less. So, the Census count only represents a portion of those actually confined during a year.
  • In 2010, the Census reported 2,281 youth committed for status offenses, but the juvenile courts reported 6,100 commitments. Using this data, the authors assumed that the total number of committed youth in a year would be 3.68 times the number of status offenders counted by the Census.
  • With these figures, the reports estimated confinement trends over time. They found a decline in the number of status offenders in confinement between 2001 and 2011, as well as an increase in the pace of the decline from previous years.
  • However, they also found that confinement for non-status offenses had also dropped. Status offenses in 2011 accounted for 4 percent of total confinement, the same percent as in 2001. This indicated that a reduction in confinement was perhaps a more general trend, not necessarily that status offenses in particular were resulting in less confinement.

States and courts should reexamine the use of confinement for status offenses, based on the non-serious nature of the status offense and the less expensive and more effective alternatives that exist. Families, supported by educational, mental health, child welfare and similar systems are best suited to dealing with these behaviors and should be the first choice in dealing with status offenses.

Source: Marc Levin and Derek Cohen, "Kids Doing Time for What's Not a Crime: The Over-Incarceration of Status Offenders," Texas Public Policy Foundation, March 2014.

 

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