The recommendations below focus on the creation of coordinated systems of care that keep kids in their communities and out of the justice system. Doing so requires a multi-pronged approach that trains system actors to more effectively respond to a kid’s behavior, repositions kids and families as partners in the service-planning process, and establishes a strong network of community-based supports that are tailored to the needs of those kids and families. 

  1. Whether it is a teacher reacting to an outburst in the classroom, an officer responding to an incident in the home, or a case manager determining a service plan, adults cannot properly respond to kids’ misbehaviors—either in the moment or procedurally—if they do not appreciate the context in which behaviors occur. Adults who work with or make decisions for kids must be trained to understand youth development and needs, as well as how those factors shape behaviors. This includes knowledge of the effect and signs of mental health problems and trauma, as well as an understanding of how culture, systemic bias, intersecting identities (including gender and gender expression, race, and sexual orientation), and their own personal biases influence dynamics with kids. 

  2. Reforming how status offense cases are handled begins with keeping these cases out of court. Jurisdictions across the country have reduced and even stopped the inflow of misbehavior cases—through legislative changes, local policy reforms, or judicial orders. For example, courts across the country have reduced truancy caseloads by issuing stays on court petitions and/or requiring schools to prove that they have already made reasonable efforts to address the kid’s truancy.[] Rapides Parish, LA and Spokane County, WA offer two examples of jurisdictions that have successfully implemented such reforms.  If courts no longer accept status offense cases or discourage petitions through diversion efforts, other systems—schools, child welfare, law enforcement, and social services—may be more encouraged to reexamine and improve their approach. It also allows resources to be reallocated from the justice system to preventive, community-based programs to support these changes. This is especially important for promoting the development of services for youth who have limited options in their communities.

  3. Kids are essential to identifying the underlying problems of their own misbehavior and developing an effective service plan that they believe in and are willing to be part of. Similarly, families (including biological, extended, and chosen family and anyone else who is an important support, as defined by the child) know their children best and are central to their children’s well-being—usually for the long-run.[] For more information on the importance of family as partners and on using broader definitions of family, see Ryan Shanahan and Margaret diZerega, Identifying, Engaging, and Empowering Families: A Charge for Juvenile Justice Agencies (New York: Vera Institute of Justice, 2016),  Both parties should be key partners at each stage of the decision-making and service planning process—because they should have agency in shaping their own futures and because interventions are unlikely to be successful without their buy-in and influence.

  4. Not all cases call for interventions, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution for those that do. Support services are most effective when they are tailored to match the nature and intensity of kids’ needs. To achieve this, systems must be able to assess youth and family needs, triage cases appropriately, and have an array of service options that range from minimal (such as weekly mentoring check-ins) to more intensive and longer-term (such as in-home family therapy programs). It is also important that systems swiftly respond to the more serious and immediate needs of kids and families via readily available crisis intervention and mental health services. This holistic approach requires consistent cross-agency collaboration—both in how systems interact and share information, as well as how they serve individual kids and families.

  5. As jurisdictions design and implement reformed, community-based status offense systems, it is  critical that they examine the effects of current and new policies and practices, with an explicit focus on equity for girls, kids of color, and LGBT/GNC youth. By tracking and sharing their progress, systems are held accountable and can work towards achieving real change in how they serve kids and their families.

How rethinking status offenses helped spur juvenile justice reform in Connecticut

Group Created with Sketch. Learn More