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Status Offense Reform

During my time as a 9-1-1 Operator/Dispatcher with the City of Phoenix, I handled a lot of calls. 200-250 per day per 9-1-1 operator was the average. The calls I found most frustrating were stuck in the gray area of law enforcement response. Most involved juveniles. For example, a frustrated mother would call and state that her 8 year old son was arguing with her, being belligerent (not violent) and would not go to bed or a father would ring stating his 16 year old daughter hasn’t come home and it’s now 2 am. The undertone of most of these calls was: I’m worried for the safety/well-being of myself or my child and I just don’t know what to do. The parent didn’t necessarily want law enforcement involvement but they just didn’t have any other options. At the time, if there wasn’t any immediate threat, we would recommend they go to the court and file an incorrigibility packet. I’ll admit I have no idea what the packet included or what happened after that. I’d like to believe it offered some sort of appropriate services so the family could get at the underlying reason their child was acting out and the parents could learn some appropriate and positive coping/parenting skills. I guess it really doesn’t matter because shortly into my career, the court phased out this option and incorrigibility packets no longer existed. So, our only option was to send out an officer whose only option is often to write a citation for the offense, often a status offense.

By Virtue of Age

Status offenses account for a percentage of the offenses juveniles are charged with. This percentage fluctuates depending on the criminal justice environment the child lives in. Status offenses are those crimes which include behaviors that are only a crime due to the age of the offender. Status offenses include curfew violations, runaway, liquor law violations and the most frequent issue—truancy which in some jurisdictions is labeled “ungovernability”. In 2010, courts handled roughly 137,000 status offense cases. 36% of these cases were truancy with an additional 12% being ungovernability. Although cases are declining (between 2002 and 2010, courts nationally handled 33% fewer cases), there are still far too many juveniles entering the juvenile justice system when what they truly need are community supports and a resolution to the issues creating the concerning behaviors. More concerning is the number of status offending juveniles being sent to detention.

Historical Approach

Going way back, parenting and the issues that came with it were easily handled by the family, which included extended family and the community. Supports were all around and parenting was a different animal than it is today. For whatever reasons, positive or negative, and as status offenses came into being, children were no longer being taught how to behave and given consequences by “the Village.” Parents began to find themselves alone trying to address behaviors that were changing due to nature and nurture. Along with this, the community supports began changing as well and as financial matters worsened, many organizations and activities for juveniles closed. The only response to these behaviors with potential hazards to the youth and community was to call in law and order. After all, order was really at the root of what the families wanted and needed. More and more, status offenses were being handled by the juvenile justice system and many children ended up in secure facilities housed with violent youth. Few professionals believed this was a good idea, but there seemed few other options. In 2002, with the re-authorized Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, professionals were called again to move away from detaining status offenders. Many areas reacted by changing their systems and the circumstances that would allow a status offender to be placed in secure detention. Encouraged by this environment, many professionals got together and started making some additional changes. 

Times A’Changing

In 2013, the Vera Institute (Vera) of Justice’s Status Offense Reform Center, a member of the Models for Change Resource Center Partnership, presented “From Courts to Communities: The Right Response to Truancy, Running Away, and Other Status Offenses.” This paper addresses how Vera is changing how professionals view status offenses and what can be done about them. “A new paradigm has emerged: Connect families with social services in their communities instead of turning to courts,” states Annie Salsich and Jennifer Trone, Vera. These resources need to be encouraged and supported and juvenile justice professionals, including patrol officers need to be aware of their existence and when to offer these solutions to families seeking help. “Youth who run away from home, routinely skip school, and engage in other risky behaviors that are prohibited precisely because of their young age are acting out in ways that should concern the adults in their lives,” explains Salsich and Trone. “They need appropriate attention—but not from the juvenile justice system.” As part of this new paradigm, Vera launched the Status Offense Reform Center with resources, toolkits and educational material for juvenile justice professionals at all levels. The next educational opportunity is a webinar titled, “Engaging Stakeholders in Status Offense Reform.” Vera hopes that more education and support to juvenile justice professionals will encourage communities to implement change. 

There are a variety of factors that fuel a child’s acting out and by addressing these factors and offering support to the families, our communities can begin the return to “the Village” and keep these children out of detention centers. Utilizing community-based policing tactics officers can be an integral part in offering community solutions and support. My hope is 9-1-1 operators will get fewer calls that make us feel frustrated and helpless and juveniles and their families will get the help they need to assist the child to grow up healthy, happy and a positive addition to society.


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