Status offenses are acts committed by a juvenile that are illegal only because the person committing them is a child. Major examples of such offenses include running away, truancy, ungovernability (incorrigibility or being beyond the control of one’s parents), and underage liquor law violations.
Status offenses are typically handled by special juvenile courts—tribunals originally designed to provide treatment and guidance, rather than punishment. Depending on the state, status offenses may be framed as delinquency matters—where a child is technically charged with a crime—or as dependency matters. In the latter case, the child is not characterized as a delinquent, and courts do not formally treat the status offense as criminal.
Although the number of status offense cases is dwarfed by the number of delinquency cases handled by juvenile courts, they still constitute a significant portion of juvenile courts’ caseload, and their numbers are increasing. In 1996, state juvenile courts formally disposed of approximately 162,000 status offense cases—more than double the number they handled in 1987.
Under federal law, states are required (under penalty of losing federal funds) to treat status offenders differently than delinquents. Under the terms of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, states are required to exclude status offenders from correctional and juvenile detention facilities. The Act requires status offenders to be housed in community ‘‘shelter facilities,’’ and detained juveniles must be strictly separated from adult offenders. This provision reflected a social work ethos that has grown less popular in recent years.
Despite diversion and deinstitutionalization mandates, status offenders continue to be detained or institutionalized—or both. In nearly 10,000 of the status offense cases in 1995, the juvenile court ordered the minor detained. Although only half of all status offense cases resulted in conviction (or ‘‘adjudication’’ in juvenile court parlance) and most of those resulted in probation, 16 percent resulted in placement outside the home.
Critics say these practices disproportionately affect minorities, who experience higher detention rates, and girls, who are more likely to be charged with running away. Some policy advocates, including the American Bar Association, have advocated elimination of status offenses. Abolition of status offenses is particularly appropriate if one believes that juvenile courts are unsuitable child welfare agencies. For many, provision of social services is a preferable model to creating a criminal record for young offenders.
DANIEL M. FILLER
References and Further Reading