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By Marie Wiliams, JD
Coalition for Juvenile Justice
Concrete recommendations like those found in the Coalition for Juvenile Justice’s recently released National Standards for Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses (the Standards) are vital to addressing, and bringing an end to, the incarceration of children who commit status offenses.
Status offenses are actions that violate the law only because they were committed by a person who is under 18 years old. They include running away, skipping school, and possessing tobacco products. Confinement for status offenses was initially prohibited under the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA), but subsequent amendments to the law gave courts the authority to lock up children if they were also in violation of a valid court order (VCO). For example, if a young woman who was ordered by a judge to attend school continued to skip class, she could be placed in a juvenile detention facility for this behavior. This is known as the VCO exception.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention reports that 27 states continue to incarcerate children through the VCO exception. Of these, 15 states locked up more than 100 young people in 2010. Three states – Kentucky, Arkansas and Washington - detained more than 1,000 children for status offenses that year.
A growing body of research shows that incarceration can be harmful for children, particularly those who have committed a status offense. Young people who are placed in detention centers have a higher rate of recidivism than those who remain in their homes and communities, according to the Justice Policy Institute. Recidivism rates continue to escalate the more times a child is locked up.
The Justice Policy Institute further reports that juvenile detention centers are often overcrowded and understaffed facilities—environments that can breed violence and result in further problems for young men and women.
The Standards include practical suggestions to keep young men and women out of court, and to eliminate incarceration for children who have committed status offenses. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) released the Standards as part of the Safety, Opportunity & Success (SOS): Standards of Care for Non-Delinquent Youth Project. The project’s work has also included a recent brief on how communities can better work with children who are skipping school. A webinar is also scheduled for April 2 at 3:30 p.m., to discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) teens and status offenses.
The Standards include specific recommendations that law enforcement, social service providers, courts and others can use to help address status offense behaviors. These recommendations
- Implementing family engagement and alternative dispute resolution strategies such as mediation and family group conferencing during status offense cases;
- Providing access to family-connected and community-based services in children’s home communities, especially where a community may have disproportionately high involvement in the status offense system;
- Identifying the root cause of the status offending behavior before court involvement; and
- Avoiding incarceration for all children who commit status offenses.
Collective Support for the New Standards
Recently the Nevada Juvenile Justice Commission (State Advisory Group), the National Juvenile Defender Center, and The Equity Project joined other national, state, and local organizations in endorsing the Standards. CJJ encourages communities to review the standards and implement their suggestions where possible. CJJ also encourages organizations to consider endorsing the Standards. For more information about the Standards or to sign your organization on as an endorser, please contact Lisa Pilnik at [email protected].
The ACT4JJ Campaign also calls for the elimination of the VCO exception as a critical reform to encourage all states and territories to end the practice of detaining status offenders. Last month, Representative Cardenas introduced legislation, H.R. 4123, to do just that.
Click here to learn more about the bill and how you can take action.
Learn more: Join an April 2 webinar (3:30 pm EDT) to discuss lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) teens and status offenses.
For more information about the Standards or to sign your organization on as an endorser, contact Lisa Pilnik at [email protected]
Marie Williams, JD, is Executive Director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and leads the organization’s Safety, Opportunity & Success (SOS): Standards of Care for Non-Delinquent Youth Project.
This post is part of the JJDPA Matters blog, a project of the Act4JJ Campaign with help from SparkAction. The JJDPA, the nation's landmark juvenile justice law, turns 40 this September. Each month leading up to this anniversary, Act4JJ member organizations and allies will post blogs on issues related to the JJDPA. To learn more and take action in support of JJDPA, visit the Act4JJ JJDPA Matters Action Center, powered by SparkAction.