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Curfew sign

Photo by Matthew Peoples | flickr creative commons

What is the best way to address the challenges of youth who break curfew, skip school, or runaway from home? These are known as status offenses, given that they are not criminal acts when an adult commits them. The question remains whether this should be considered a criminal act. Or are there better ways to address these problems and the risk factors that lead youth to this behavior?

Nevertheless, youth who commit status offenses can make contact with the juvenile justice system and wind up in court. This is an ineffective approach to addressing the underlying social causes of a youth’s behaviors that produces negative outcomes for youth and society alike. For example, analysis finds curfews disproportionately criminalize youth of color, misuse law enforcement resources, and fail to reduce crime. Such enforcement can invariably inform the school-to-prison pipeline, which also disproportionately impacts youth of color.

A recent JJIE op-ed details an alternative range of approaches that stakeholders and jurisdictions are developing, across the country, to best address status offenses. Specifically, the article highlights the growing role that community-based alternatives can play in meeting at-risk youths’ needs. It draws upon a new online resource bank, The Status Offense Reform Center, developed by the Vera Institute. The new resource provides tools for jurisdictions that want to use innovative policies to address status offenders without resorting to the court system. Their toolkit shows how to develop systems change, leverage local data, and monitor implementation over time. Plus, it allows for systems collaboration by highlighting local reform and lessons learned.

JJIE also highlights a new report released by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice on the need for thoughtful national standards for status offenses. The report highlights the dangers of confinement for such low-level, nuisance behaviors. Placing these youth in detention does not correct behavior, puts youth in physical danger, and disconnects them from their families and other support systems necessary for success. The report offers clear recommendations for state policymakers, including that states end juvenile court sanctions for status offenses and support community-based programs that work with the youth and their families. This approach develops pro-social peer and adult supports within a community to create a more positive environment for youth. This can fundamentally address risk factors and help youth be successful.

There is no acceptable reason for a youth to be detained or placed into court proceedings because of incorrigible behavior. Local justice leaders and policymakers would be wise to use these resources as a way to support cost-effective and successful alternatives to confinement for low-level justice-involved youth, or even consider if strident enforcement of status offenses is necessary at all.