We jail too many kids, and for wrong reasons
The Prison Policy Initiative recently issued a report finding that status offenses and technical violations lead to the incarceration of more than 5,000 young people nationwide.
A status offense is a noncriminal act considered a violation of the law only because of the youthful age of the perpetrator. For example, a minor would face sanctions for drinking a beer or smoking a cigarette, even though an adult can freely do both. Technical violations arise when a youth, who has already been placed on juvenile probation, does not complete conditions of probation, like regular school attendance.
For those already touched by the juvenile justice system, the number of potential technical violations increases due to the use of valid court orders (VCOs) — mandated conditions of probation ordered by a juvenile court judge. If a 16-yearold commits the “crime” of truancy, for example, a juvenile court judge could order that youth, as a condition of his probation, to regularly attend school. The added VCO — required regular school attendance — heightens the consequences of continuing to miss class, since doing so would now violate a specific term of probation, which could lead to time in a detention facility.
The VCO is overused by judges, is detrimental to youth, and is counterproductive to the original goals of juvenile delinquency law. It would be beneficial to our youth, to our community and to our economy to minimize youthful detention for status-based offenses and instead implement community-based alternatives.
The goal of juvenile justice departments should be to ensure youth do not reoffend. Juvenile probation officers and juvenile court judges should therefore be in the business of behavior change, not increased punishment.
When judges choose to detain youths for violations of status-based offenses, they curtail the use of alternatives to incarceration that are more effective in changing youths’ behavior. Community-based alternatives, for instance, have been increasingly effective and cost-efficient.
Community-based alternatives provide a range of services and supports to young people and their families, with the goal of addressing the underlying stressors for youth. Oftentimes they involve the use of tailored education methods, focusing on learning that leads to employment. For example, if a young person has been charged with truancy, a discussion of both the importance of school attendance as well as additional dialogue about career opportunities could reignite the child’s interest in education.
Community-based alternatives to detention are better for the youth, the community and the economy. Right now, some 75 percent of youth in detention are held for nonviolent charges and status offenses. Yet by providing a tailored recovery plan for each juvenile that is appropriate for the specific risks associated with each participant, states like Kansas have successfully decreased youth incarceration rates.
Juvenile justice systems should focus on ending detention for status-based offenses once and for all. Juvenile court judges should also promote engagement with community-based programs as a better alternative to incarceration.