Juveniles and Status Offenses

With the division of courts into adult and juvenile jurisdictions, there were a number of activities that were deemed offenses for juveniles. As a group, these are called status offenses and are such simply because of the age of the offender. Truancy, possession and consumption of alcohol, incorrigibility, curfew violations, and purchase of cigarettes are examples of status offenses. The theory behind status offenses stems from parens patriae in that status offenses are harmful to minors, and the courts need to protect minors from such activities.

During the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a move toward deinstitutionalizing status offenses. The movement was formalized by the 1974 Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act. Deinstitutionalization meant that juveniles who committed status offenses were diverted from the juvenile justice system to agencies outside the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. The county or district attorney was given the authority to divert an offender, and this decision was made before a petition was filed (see below section on court procedure). Diversion was implemented because many legislators felt that status offenses were minor in terms of criminal nature, and juveniles were better off having their families or some other agency deal with the matter than being formally processed by the justice system. Formal processing of status offenses was thought to lead to labeling and further delinquent acts, thus negating the whole purpose of rehabilitation. Diversion is till practiced today.

One status offense, incorrigibility, received a lot of attention during the 1970s. Juveniles who habitually do not obey their parents are incorrigible. With parens patriae still operating, many incarcerated juveniles were serving time for incorrigibility. Critics argued that almost all juveniles disobey their parents at some point, and such behavior may not always warrant court action. It seemed that incarceration exposed juveniles to much more severe criminality and sometimes even sexual and physical abuse. In short, juveniles came out of the system less socialized than when they entered it.

After diversion, juveniles who were adjudicated for status offenses were often classified as children in need of supervision (CHINS), persons in need of supervision (PINS), and minors in need of supervision (MINS). Today, status offenses are still illegal in all states, and many juveniles are still confined for such offenses. The Department of Justice estimated that in 1996, juvenile courts around the United States formally disposed of some 162,000 status offenses, 44,800 of which were liquor law violations (OJJDP, 2000).

Inside Juveniles and Status Offenses