Some acts are considered criminal only when minors commit them; these are called juvenile status offenses.
In juvenile cases, a "status offense" involves conduct that would not be a crime if it was committed by an adult -- in other words, the actions are considered to be a violation of the law only because of the youth's status as a minor (typically anyone under 18 years of age). Common examples of status offenses include underage drinking, skipping school, and violating a local curfew law. In an average year, approximately 20% of all juvenile arrests involve status offenses. Read on to learn what types of conduct constitute status offenses, how status offense cases are handled, and what penalties might apply to status offenses. (To learn more about other cases that are handled by the juvenile system, see Nolo's article Juvenile Court: An Overview.)
Types of Status Offenses
The kind of conduct that might constitute a status offense varies by state. The most common status offenses include:
- truancy (skipping school)
- violating a city or county curfew
- underage possession and consumption of alcohol
- underage possession and use of tobacco
- running away, and
- ungovernability (being beyond the control of parents or guardians).
How States Handle Status Offenses
Traditionally, status offenses were handled exclusively through the juvenile justice system. But in the 1960s and 1970s, many states began to view status offense violations as a warning signal that a child needed better supervision or some other type of assistance to avoid future run-ins with the law. This view is grounded in fact -- research has linked status offenses to later delinquency.
For the most part, state goals in dealing with status offenses became threefold:
- to preserve families
- to ensure public safety, and
- to prevent young people from becoming delinquent or committing crimes in the future.
In this vein, the 1974 Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act emphasized "deinstitutionalizing" status offenses. This meant giving prosecutors broad discretion to divert status offense cases away from juvenile court and toward other government agencies that could better provide services to at-risk juveniles. Diverting a case before a delinquency petition was filed also allowed a young person to avoid the delinquent label -- some believed that label itself impeded a juvenile's chances for rehabilitation.
In 1997, only one in five status offense cases were formally processed by the courts, and even fewer status offense cases actually made it to juvenile court in the first place. That's because law enforcement officers are less likely to refer status offense cases to juvenile court, compared with delinquency cases. Of those status offense cases that do get referred, 94% involve liquor law violations.
Today, most states refer to status offenders as "children or juveniles in need of supervision, services, or care." A few states designate some status offenders as "dependent" or "neglected children," and give responsibility for these young people over to state child welfare programs.
States approach status offenses in a number of different ways. In some states, a child who commits a status offense may end up in juvenile court. In other jurisdictions, the state's child welfare agency is the first to deal with the problem. Some states have increased the use of residential placement for offenders, and others emphasize community-based programs. But, in all states, if informal efforts and programs fail to remedy the problem, the young person will end up in juvenile court.
Penalties for Status Offenses
For juveniles who do end up in juvenile court over a status offense, the kinds of penalties the court may impose vary from state to state. Common penalties for status offense violations include:
- suspending the juvenile's driver's license
- requiring the juvenile to pay a fine or restitution
- placing the juvenile with someone other than a parent or guardian (such as a relative, foster home, or group home), or
- ordering the juvenile to attend a counseling or education program.
If a juvenile violates a court order, most courts have the authority to order the juvenile's detention at a secure, locked facility. And, in some states, courts can require that the juvenile's parents attend counseling sessions or parenting classes.
Curfew violations are the subject of some controversy. Curfew laws are established locally, by cities or counties. Typically, they prohibit young people under a certain age (usually 18) from being in a public place during certain hours (between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m., for example). Most curfew ordinances contain exceptions for things like travel to and from work or school events. For the most part, local governing bodies enact curfews with the goal of preventing juvenile crime and keeping the peace.
How curfew violations are handled -- and what penalties might be imposed -- will vary depending on the city or locality. In some jurisdictions, police bring curfew violators to a center where they must wait to be picked up by a parent or guardian. Often, the police officer is given discretion to issue a warning or simply take the minor home. Sometimes the curfew violator faces fines, mandatory community service, enrollment in after-school programs, or the loss of driver's license privileges. In extreme cases, a curfew violator might end up in juvenile hall. In some jurisdictions, parents who knowingly allow curfew violations could also be subject to fines.
Challenges have been mounted to some curfew laws on the basis that they violate juveniles' First Amendment rights to free speech and association. One recent example involved a curfew law imposed by the city of Rochester, New York. The New York Court of Appeals struck down that law as unconstitutional, but a number of other curfew ordinances have been upheld after being challenged in court.
A minor is considered truant if she or he skips school without a valid excuse and without the knowledge of a parent or guardian. States and school districts have different standards as to how many absences are required before a student will be deemed truant. In some states, the number is three per year. In others, it's as many as 18 absences.
Schools are usually the first in line to enforce truancy laws and even have the authority to refer truancy cases to juvenile court when necessary. Police officers have the legal power to detain truant children who are outside of school grounds. Many states also hold parents accountable for their children's truancy, imposing fines or even jail time on parents who fail to ensure sure that their children are in school.
Truancy accounts for the majority of status offense cases in the juvenile system, and studies have show a strong link between truancy and future delinquency, not to mention difficulty in school. For this reason, many states, counties, and schools have begun to crack down on truancy.
For more information about juvenile court, the rights of minors in juvenile proceedings, and how to help if you are the parent of a minor in trouble with the law, get The Criminal Law Handbook: Know Your Rights, Survive the System, by Paul Bergman and Sara Berman (Nolo). For help with a juvenile proceeding, you can turn to Nolo's trusted Lawyer Directory to find a juvenile justice attorney near you.
by: Kathleen Michon, J.D.