Status offenses are activities deemed unlawful due to the actor’s status as a minor at the time of the act, and would not be illegal if committed by an adult. Examples of status offenses include truancy, running away, possession and consumption of alcohol, and curfew violations.
Since 1974, the “deinstitutionalization of status offenders” or “DSO provision” of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) has provided that youth adjudicated for a status offense may not be placed in locked confinement. Congress, rightly, understood that locking up these youth does not resolve the factors that led to their status offense and can often make things worse. The DSO protection was designed to ensure that these youth, who often have unmet mental health or education needs, receive help from the appropriate human services agency rather than the justice system. Unfortunately, a 1980 amendment to the law, known as the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception – has allowed status offenders to continue to be locked up for second and subsequent status offenses, such as violating a court order not to commit another status offense.
While many states are effectively and proactively addressing the needs of status offenders without resorting to detention, too many young kids are still finding their way into the juvenile justice system unnecessarily. For more information on how to better address the needs of these youth, please see:
- National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses
- Improving Responses to Youth Charged with Status Offenses: A Training Curriculum
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