Just Kids: New Report Looks at How to Keep Kids Who Misbehave Out of the Justice System

New York, NY—Skipping school, running away, or violating curfew may seem like normal adolescent acting out. But for thousands of kids every year, these misbehaviors result in being taken to court or even locked up. A new special online report documents what we know about these behaviors—called “status offenses” because they are only illegal because of a kid’s status as a minor—and why criminalizing them doesn’t work.  

For many teenagers, misbehaving can be part of normal development, but for others, it’s a symptom of—or response to—an underlying problem. For example, one in every five cases of runaway children is tied to abuse. When a teenager is sent to court for a status offense—often because a school administrator, family member, or police officer didn’t know what else to do—these underlying problems may remain unaddressed and can be made worse.   Whether a kid’s behavior is normal acting out or a cry for help, the experience of being criminalized can set them on a detrimental path of further justice-system involvement that is difficult to get out of. Furthermore, status offenses push those young people into the system who are already underserved and more likely to be subject to biases, specifically: girls, kids from poor communities, kids of color, and LGBT and gender non-conforming kids.   

“It’s surprising to many people that running away or skipping school can land teenagers behind bars,” said Krista Larson, director of Vera’s Center on Youth Justice. “But while it may seem like an artifact from another era, the criminalization of misbehavior is still a reality for thousands of children a year. We hope that this report helps sheds much-needed light on this issue and helps jurisdictions to stop using courts for status offenses, put in place supports that families and communities need, and ultimately, make sure that kids reach their full potential.”   The report highlights facts about status offenses and the key factors that have contributed to the cycle of young people being pushed into the system for such behavior, including:

  • There were 100,100 known cases nationally in 2014 in which kids were sent to court for status offenses. However, this number is a significant underestimate because not all courts that handle these cases report the data centrally. 
  • In 2013, 27 percent of kids in detention—the equivalent of youth jail—were locked up either because of a status offense, or for misbehaving while on probation for a previous offense.
  • The legal definitions for what makes a misbehavior turn into a court matter varies widely—for example, in Wisconsin, students can be referred to court for as little as being late to class five times. In South Carolina, “school disturbance” is defined as any time a student interferes with or disturbs students or teachers “in any way” and it is punishable by up to 90 days’ imprisonment.
  • Schools with more black students are more likely to suspend and expel kids for “acting out,” while schools with fewer black students are more likely to respond with behavioral treatment and special education programs.

The report also demonstrates what can be done to shift away from this punitive approach by profiling Connecticut’s substantial status offense reforms over the last 20 years, which have helped to drive down the number of youth in the juvenile justice system to a point where the state is now looking to close its last state-operated juvenile prison.
The report builds on Vera’s more than 15 years of experience to pilot community-based, non-criminal responses to status offenses. Vera is currently working with Colorado and Hawaii to develop such responses through its Status Offense Reform Center, which also provides tools and resources to jurisdictions nationwide.   
The full interactive report, including an accompanying short documentary film, is available on Vera’s website at www.vera.org/just-kids.

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