'Status offenses' don't deserve detention

Last week, I had the chance to speak at a Capitol Hill Roundtable hosted by the National Council on Juvenile and Family Court Judges, in conjunction with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice. The event highlighted the need to both reauthorize the Juvenile Justice Delinquency and Prevention Act (JJDPA), and to have an educated judiciary.

The JJDPA provides core protections for children who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, Congress has not acted to reauthorize this legislation in more than a decade.

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Among the JJDPA’s key provisions is an assurance that children who commit so-called “status offenses” are not placed in secure detention. Status offenses include behaviors such as coming home after curfew, skipping school, and running away from home. They are behaviors that constitute a crime only because the person committing them is younger than 18.

The JJDPA provides an exception that permits youth who commit status offenses to be confined if their behavior violates a valid court order.  This exception has come under fire because of the many harmful effects it has on juveniles. As a result, Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Calif.) recently introduced H.R. 4123, legislation that would prohibit courts from placing youth in locked detention for status offenses.

While many states have already eliminated this exception, 22 states still use it. My home state of Kentucky is among those that continue to permit judges to use the exception. This decision comes with a price tag though. Last year alone, Kentucky spent $6 million on detention for status offenders. In 2010, more than 100 of Kentucky’s children were placed in locked confinement. It cost our children and families as well.

Many of these children are like Sara*, a young lady who came before me recently in the Jefferson County, Ky., court over which I preside. Sara is the sort of young woman who many of us know. She is thin, blonde, and until recently had excelled academically, taking all AP classes at her high-performing Louisville, Ky., high school. By the time she came before me, however, she was failing her classes. She ended up in court because she had missed 38 days of school, behavior that constitutes a status offense in my jurisdiction.

It didn’t take long for me to notice the similarities between Sara and other children who are accused of status offenses. For Sara, like so many others, the behaviors that had led her to stand before me that day were part of a larger issue that required a solution other than confinement.

Shortly after being elected to the bench, I realized what a disservice it is to yell at and embarrass juveniles who come before the court for status offenses. These youth have already been yelled at and experienced trauma in their lives. In fact, according to one of my fellow speakers at Wednesday’s event, Dr. Shawn Marsh, juveniles who are “deeply involved” with the juvenile justice system have higher rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder than some groups of returning military veterans. Placing our youth in locked detention and causing further trauma does not serve their needs.

Instead, my court – along with a growing number of others across the country - has found ways to ensure that youth who are referred for status offense behaviors are provided with services to help address their needs, and the needs of their families. We ensure that Sara, and other children like her, meet with a therapist at the courthouse.

In Sara’s case, the therapist revealed that Sara was hiding in the school bathroom instead of going to class. Sara suffered from bulimia nervosa, and had repeatedly been sexually assaulted by her stepfather.

Sara’s story is just one of many that were shared during Wednesday’s roundtable. She, and the rest of our children, are ill-served by being locked away for status offenses. Reauthorizing the JJDPA will ensure our children’s protection, and that the judiciary and other stakeholders have a means to meet Sara’s needs, instead of placing her behind bars. It will also provide further opportunity for judicial training. The JJDPA must be reauthorized, if not because of the financial cost, then because of the cost to our young people, families, and communities.

*All names have been changed to protect confidentiality.

Byer has served as a Jefferson County, Kentucky Circuit Court Judge in the Family Division since 1996. She was named Louisville Bar Association Judge of the Year in 2002. She previously served on National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges's Board of Trustees and is currently a member of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice's executive board.