Status Offenses

On September 18, 2014, the Vera Institute of Justice convened its first educational, research-based briefing titled Making Court the Last Resort: Youth and Expert Voices on System Change. This briefing is part of the larger series of briefings that Vera is convening on Capitol Hill this fall, titled The State of Juvenile Justice: A National Conversation About Research, Results, and Reform.

Watch a video of the event.

Dan Wilhelm, Vera’s vice president and chief program officer, welcomed the Congressional staff in attendance on behalf of Vera and the MacArthur Foundation. Christine Leonard, Director of Vera’s Washington Office, moderated the discussion. The briefings’ two panels focused on status offenses, which are behaviors that are problematic but non-criminal in nature—such as running away from home, skipping school, or violating curfew—that are prohibited under the law only because of an individual’s status as a minor. Representative Tony Cardenas (D-CA: 29) at the morning briefing and Senator Bob Casey (D-PA) at the afternoon briefing each made introductory remarks about the need to make juvenile justice and status offense reform a priority. 

The first panel consisted of youth voices, who detailed their personal experiences with the juvenile justice system. Hillary Transue of Ashley, Pennsylvania, Rufus McDowney of Washington, DC, and Marquel Canty of New Orleans, Louisiana characterized the emotional and developmental damage that results from being incarcerated as a child. Ms. Transue was featured in the documentary film Kids for Cash, which details the scandal that was uncovered in Luzerne County PA, where a judge was receiving kickbacks for sentencing youths to long prison terms. Mr. McDowney is an active member of the DC Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services Youth Council, and was featured in the award winning documentary, 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. Mr. Canty participated in the Youth Futures Initiative at the Youth Empowerment Project in New Orleans, from which he graduated with his high school diploma. Ms. Transue believed locking up young people and separating them from their families makes them feel like they are no longer fit to be a member of society. Mr. McDowney and Mr. Canty spoke positively of alternatives to incarceration such as independent living and programs that teach basic life skills that allow young people to learn in a peaceful environment. “Jail just teaches you how to be a better criminal,” noted Canty, “Once you’re in the system, it’s hard to get out.”
The expert panel described the harmful results of incarcerating status offenders, and alternative approaches on a national and local level. Vidhya Anathakrishnan, project director with Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, noted that 137,000 status offense cases were brought to court nationally in 2010. Despite a nationwide prohibition on incarcerating youth charged with status offenses, the Valid Court Order (VCO)1 exception allows judges to detain youth for violating such an order. Dane Bolin, assistant administrator for the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury, shared the experience of his jurisdiction’s change from an “adultified” model for juvenile justice, to one that focuses on alternatives like community services and assistance to families in crisis, which was welcomed by local law enforcement. Deborah Fowler, deputy director of Texas Appleseed, agreed that case managers or counselors who get to know families can learn what the root causes of truancy and other problems are in order to resolve them. The Texas legislature has classified certain status offenses as class C misdemeanors, making court the “first resort” for many young people.
Thena Robinson-Mock, project director for Ending the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Campaign at the Advancement Project, recounted her experiences representing children as young as 11 shackled in a courtroom. Rather than continue to see police officers in schools and children led out in handcuffs, she encouraged Congress to require data collection on juvenile justice and zero tolerance policies, particularly regarding discrepancies in race, age, gender and disability. Finally, Marc Levin, director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, affirmed that incarcerating young people encourages recidivism and does not improve outcomes for children or adults. There are alternatives to locking children up, which can range from reporting daily to electronic monitoring in more severe cases.