What Are Status Offenses and Why Do They Matter?

Posted April 6, 2019
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Blog whatarestatusoffenses 2019

Near­ly 100,000 young peo­ple are drawn into the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem each year for sta­tus offens­es. Sta­tus offens­es — behav­ior such as tru­an­cy, run­ning away and cur­few vio­la­tions — are not crimes, but they are pro­hib­it­ed under the law because of a youth’s sta­tus as a minor. While sta­tus offens­es are not seri­ous offens­es, they can have seri­ous con­se­quences for youth.

What are sta­tus offenses?

The five most com­mon juve­nile sta­tus offense exam­ples include:

  1. skip­ping school,
  2. drink­ing while underage;
  3. run­ning away;
  4. vio­lat­ing cur­few; and
  5. act­ing out (also known as ungovern­abil­i­ty, incor­ri­gi­bil­i­ty or being beyond the con­trol of one’s parents).

Most youths who engage in sta­tus and oth­er minor offens­es nev­er progress to more seri­ous behav­ior, accord­ing to a 2015 lit­er­a­ture review by the fed­er­al Office of Juve­nile Jus­tice Delin­quen­cy and Pre­ven­tion. This kind of behav­ior can be a nor­mal part of ado­les­cent devel­op­ment, per the Vera Insti­tute of Justice’s Sta­tus Offense Reform Cen­ter. But, for some young peo­ple, it can sig­nal under­ly­ing prob­lems at home or in school that need clos­er attention.

Do young peo­ple go to court for juve­nile sta­tus offenses?

In some juris­dic­tions, sta­tus offense cas­es are referred to social ser­vice agen­cies or fam­i­ly cri­sis units that can offer young peo­ple guid­ance and sup­port. Oth­er juris­dic­tions rely on the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem, despite evi­dence that puni­tive respons­es to these types of behav­iors are inef­fec­tive. In 2016, the most recent year for which nation­al data is avail­able, 94,700 sta­tus offense cas­es were han­dled by U.S. courts. Dur­ing this year, juve­nile pro­ba­tion was the most com­mon sanc­tion ordered by the court for sta­tus offense cases.

What’s the best response to young peo­ple with sta­tus offenses?

The Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion makes the case for address­ing pre­dictable ado­les­cent mis­be­hav­ior out­side of the court sys­tem in its report Trans­form­ing Juve­nile Pro­ba­tion: A Vision for Get­ting It Right. Young peo­ple with sta­tus offens­es should be held account­able for their mis­be­hav­ior by par­ents, teach­ers and oth­ers in the com­mu­ni­ty with­out resort­ing to legal sanc­tions, court over­sight or the threat of con­fine­ment. This is known as diversion.

Young peo­ple should nev­er be adju­di­cat­ed or for­mal­ly processed for sta­tus offens­es,” says Steve Bish­op, a senior asso­ciate at the Foun­da­tion. They fall safe­ly below the thresh­old of cas­es that should be for­mal­ly processed — a group that should be lim­it­ed to young peo­ple with a his­to­ry of seri­ous or chron­ic offend­ing who pose a sig­nif­i­cant risk to pub­lic safety.”

What’s the worst that can hap­pen to juve­nile sta­tus offenders?

Since 1974, the fed­er­al Juve­nile Jus­tice and Delin­quen­cy Pre­ven­tion Act has dis­cour­aged states from plac­ing youth with juve­nile sta­tus offens­es in secure deten­tion or locked con­fine­ment. States that do hold large num­bers of these youths in secure deten­tion risk los­ing a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of their juve­nile jus­tice block grant awards. This part of the fed­er­al act — known as the dein­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion of sta­tus offend­ers core require­ment — is meant to encour­age states to divert youth with sta­tus offens­es away from the juve­nile jus­tice sys­tem toward more ther­a­peu­tic com­mu­ni­ty-based programs.

Despite these cau­tions, more than 2,200 young peo­ple with sta­tus offens­es were ordered to out-of-home place­ment — such as youth pris­ons, secure res­i­den­tial treat­ment cen­ters or group homes — in 2016. Youth of col­or were dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly con­fined for sta­tus offens­es dur­ing this time. They rep­re­sent­ed 46% of the total youth pop­u­la­tion in 2016, yet account­ed for 53% of the young peo­ple con­fined by courts for sta­tus offenses.

The best thing we can do for teenagers doing things like stay­ing out late and drink­ing beer is let them, or help them, mature with­out being pulled into the jus­tice sys­tem,” says Bish­op. Young peo­ple who get locked up for nor­mal teenage behav­ior often end up worse off than if the sys­tem hadn’t got­ten involved in the first place. That’s because con­fine­ment dis­rupts pos­i­tive con­nec­tions to fam­i­lies and schools and the usu­al guid­ance, edu­ca­tion and sup­port net­works that could keep them on the right track.”

Relat­ed resources on juve­nile sta­tus offenses

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