Status offenses are generally crimes that are age-specific. For example, an adult would not be arrested for skipping school, running away from home, or disobedience to parents, but these are all potential offenses for juveniles. When the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevent Act (JJDPA) was first enacted it provided that juveniles could not be securely confined for committing status offenses. In 1984 the JJDPA was amended to allow for the secure confinement of juveniles for status offenses if it is determined that the juvenile violated a valid court order (VCO) in committing the offense.

However, opinions on this change have transformed over time. The National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, who advocated for the change at the time of its adoption, now supports its removal. The NCJFCJ advocates instead for a “service oriented approach that keeps youth in their community.” Research has found that juveniles who are sentenced in their communities have lower rates of recidivism and improved outcomes. Additionally, a bill was recently proposed to reauthorize the JJDPA, a portion of which would phase out the use of incarceration pursuant to a court order violation for status offenses.

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It would seem to be common sense that juveniles who have committed minor offenses such as skipping school would not be placed in jail. Implementing secure confinement for these instances uses expensive resources for innocuous behavior, which in turn raise the odds that the person will commit another offense upon their release.

There are other options for these youths. Juveniles may be sentenced to probation, which will allow them to continue attending school and to be in greater contact with their family. Some states have even removed the criminal penalty for some status offenses. For example, Texas now treats truancy as a civil offense instead of a criminal offense. This removes the possibility that a student will be kept out of their classroom further due to incarceration.

The VCO exception has been prohibited in many states, but is used frequently in others. According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, there were 7,466 uses of the VCO exception in 2014 for runaway youth, truancy cases, underage drinking, and other status offenses. There are alternative options for law enforcement to place juveniles who have run away temporarily.

The intent behind the exception is to provide punishment for juveniles who repeatedly violate these rules. Unfortunately, this form of punishment exposes a youth who has engaged in only low-level offenses to more hardened criminal youth, separates them from their families, and does little to correct the root cause of the misbehavior.

Programs have been developed that have shown positive effects aimed at decreasing status offenses. These programs can focus on intervening at a school level or providing counseling for the families of runaways. Families and Schools Together (FAST), is a program centered at a participating school and encourages families to spend time together through activities. It has provided measurable improvements in juvenile behavior in the classroom and at home, as well as in parent involvement in school and social involvement from the youth.

There may be a change in this policy in the near future. A new bill has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, sponsored by Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) and Education and the Workforce ranking member Bobby ScottRobert (Bobby) Cortez ScottDemocratic lawmaker tears into DeVos: You're 'out to destroy public education' Democrats lash out at DeVos over proposed changes to loan forgiveness plan House passes bill that would give legal status to thousands of undocumented farmworkers MORE (D-Va.), which reauthorizes the JJDPA and phases out the VCO exception. Initially, judges would have to determine that there is “no appropriate less restrictive alternative available to placing the status offender in such a facility, with due consideration to the best interest of the juvenile,” before the judge could use the VCO exception for confinement. That caveat will expire in 2020 when confinement for status offenses will end entirely.

Status offenses should be punished to in an effective way. Incarceration is not the answer. Instead, we should prioritize community-based alternatives and reserve facility space for criminals that pose a risk to public safety.

Dianna Muldrow is Policy Analyst with Right on Crime


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.