Keeping Kids Out of the Justice System: Three Jurisdictions Win Support for Reforming Local Responses to Truancy and Other Status Offenses

New York, NY—The Vera Institute of Justice today announced that it has selected three jurisdictions to participate in an initiative to develop new community-based responses for young people who commit status offenses—behaviors such as skipping school that too often land youth in the justice system, but are illegal only because of their age. Cherokee County in Georgia, and Milwaukee County and Marathon County in Wisconsin, were selected for the Status Offense System Reform Project, following a competitive bidding process at the state level.

How should parents, schools, and other institutions handle kids who commit status offenses? Too often, they turn to the justice system, not knowing there are other options. In 2013, there were 109,000 cases in which young people were sent to court for committing a status offense—more than half of which were for truancy. In 7,300 of these cases, the young person ended up spending time behind bars, often because judges and other officials feel that they lack options outside of the juvenile justice system when faced with parents who believe that they cannot control or safeguard their child.

However, both research and practice show that the juvenile justice system is ill-equipped to address the underlying problems driving behaviors deemed status offenses. Many jurisdictions have found that applying immediate and family-focused alternatives to court intervention provides meaningful and lasting support to children and families, as well as reduces court caseloads and lowers government costs.

“When teenagers run away or skip school, they need help from their communities, not punishment,” said Krista Larson, director of Vera’s Center on Youth Justice. “As the response to this initiative shows, policymakers nationwide are searching for tools to support families and communities to resolve these problems without turning to courts and incarceration. We look forward to working with our partners in Wisconsin and Georgia to build that support and keep more young people in school, at home, and out of the juvenile justice system.”

Throughout the initiative, which kicks off this month and is conducted in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Vera will guide local system stakeholders through the process of designing and implementing tailored, data-driven reform strategies. The technical assistance Vera is providing includes reviews of current policy and practice, data analysis, and interviews with key stakeholders. It will culminate with a multi-site convening to discuss reform plans and progress made. Throughout the initiative, Vera will work with leadership at the state level—who identified the participating jurisdictions—to disseminate and leverage the local work as part of a statewide reform strategy.

The initiative builds on Vera’s 15 years of experience in the field, most recently through the Status Offense Reform Center, which includes an online toolkit and other resources to help communities plan, implement, and sustain comprehensive status offense reform.

“The Department of Justice is committed to improving outcomes for status offenders who currently enter the state’s juvenile justice system. The DOJ is eager to work with the Vera Institute along with Marathon and Milwaukee Counties to develop alternatives to court intervention for its truants and runaways.”

– Brad Schimel, Attorney General, State of Wisconsin
“Georgia is excited to participate in Vera's Status Offense Reform Project as it promotes best practices for addressing the needs of status offenders. Through this partnership with Vera and our selected local jurisdiction, Georgia will continue to promote reform within the juvenile justice system through innovative practices and methods.”

– Robert Thornton, Division Director for Grants and Policy, Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Council