Few adults would be hard pressed to remember a time when they didn’t bend the rules a little during their childhood.

The decision to stay out past curfew, skip school or get into an argument with your parents meant the loss of your allowance, being grounded for the weekend or a parent-teacher conference.

But for kids today, the punishment for these behaviors can land you before a judge, facing time in a juvenile detention facility and in the pipeline of the U.S. criminal justice system.

The incarceration of youth for status offenses — behaviors that would not be considered criminal if committed by adults — is one of the major shortcomings of a juvenile justice system that has relied on one-size-fits-all solutions.

Today, an estimated 10,000 kids every year in the U.S. are placed in confinement for nonviolent status offenses that pose no threat to public safety.

There’s no denying that kids make mistakes, but those mistakes should not irrevocably alter their future with a punishment that does not fit the crime.

More states, including Texas, are adopting reforms that reduce their reliance on incarceration as the go-to response to addressing these behaviors in kids.

The need to reduce our nation’s reliance on incarceration of status offenders is not a recent phenomenon. The nationwide effort to decriminalize status offenses accelerated 40 years ago with the passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, which required states to reduce the number of incarcerated status offenders by 75 percent or risk the loss of federal funding.

The good news is that we’re on the right track. The number of youth incarcerated for status offenses has decreased by more than 50 percent from 2001 to 2011, according to a new report by the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

But while the act has been instrumental in reforming the juvenile justice system, an amendment to the law has allowed judges to once again criminalize status offenses under the valid court order exception, which gives judicial authority to confine youth in secure detention for violation of a court order.

Incarceration is the last place where many of these youth should be and doing so ignores community-based solutions that are more cost effective and better equipped to address the underlying causes for status offenses. Many status offenders lack support networks, experienced traumatic childhoods or broken homes, or have mental health or special education needs.

The decision to incarcerate youth for these nonviolent behaviors only increases the likelihood they will be rearrested, exposes kids to violence and makes it more difficult for youth to finish school, get a job or join the military.

Current juvenile justice policy risks turning today’s status offenders into tomorrow’s serious offenders.

The fate of countless kids, families and communities relies on much-needed cost-effective and proven solutions that hold youth responsible for their behavior without throwing away their futures.  

Marc Levin is originally from Galveston and is the director of the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation.

(5) comments


Well lets see here. Parents who use to put a STROP on their kids butts in years past, will now get fined and/or sent to jail now in many cases for doing so. I witness a judge point his hammer at a female parent and threaten her with jail time for spanking her daughter! Lets see again,....the juvenile justice system I was exposed to in no less than HOUSTON Texas, a few years ago,...you had to beg for permission to arrest a juvenile, from those who accepted charges when police called for one. Many of us thought juveniles were getting away with far to much then,... and still do! Many of those repeat offenders who kept getting slapped on the wrists instead of getting effective,..deterrent punishment, are now in the BIG HOUSE with Big George!
Maybe we are talking about two different juveniles systems in Texas,...or maybe I'm just mixed up and don't what I'm talking about. After all, I'm just an Ole blue jean wearing Plow Boy from the hot hill country of West Texas. What do I know anyway.
Forget I said anything.

Gary Miller

Strange as it may seem you and Severige1 are both correct.

Lars Faltskog

On the contrary, JBG -
You make a lot of sense. Children have been given the disservice through bad parenting, lenient school punishment for consequences and a justice system with no rhyme or reason. The result is that many youngsters turn out to be disrespectful and not knowing simple right from wrong. Parent, instead of supporting the school's punishment system scream out, "You're not doing that to my child!" A perfect example of bad parenting was when the media exalted the video of the little toddler calling his mom by her FIRST NAME, arguing with her about why he should be given a treat.

So much of the public thought that was so cute when, instead, it illustrated the way people have lost sight that children are to follow adults' directions (attend school without skipping, come home at reasonable time, help the elderly) and so forth. Back in more saner times, if a child did wrong, he/she was not rewarded but scared silly from threats of a whuppin'. Moms and dads supported the schools and justice system and assumed responsibility. There were not "welcome home" parties for juvenile delinquents or young adults who made it back home from being incarcerated. Nowadays, everything is a celebration - after beating out the system when trying to prove that "my child can do no wrong".

Gary Miller

For the first time in a long time I agree with you.
In old days parents enforced school rules and raised good citizens. Not always but far more than now.
I think you would find public school employment expanded as school influence declined. Courts usurped the duties of teachers and parents.
Private schools are more successful educating because they still do it the old way.
A partnership of parents and teachers.
Public schools forced parents out of the mix.

Gary Miller

An example of public schools oversteping their authority is the kids who were suspended for playing cops and robbers with toy guns in a public park ( not school property ). A local judge upheld the school conduct. The school and Judge dismissed the parents permission for the play.

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