We Need to Stop Incarcerating Children for Status Offenses and Nonviolent Misdemeanors
*Cowritten by Stacey Eunnae, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who represents students and their families in education and school discipline matters (@staceye).
Raiya,* a 17-year-old high school senior, was brutally gang raped just a few short months after moving to Washington, D.C.
Like many victims of trauma, she started “acting up” at home. She began associating with the “wrong crowd” at school and was told she would have to repeat her senior year due to failing grades. She eventually ran away from home.
Fed up with her niece’s emotional outbursts and truancy, Raiya’s guardian called the police. The judge at the juvenile delinquency proceeding ultimately charged Raiya with a “status offense” for running away.
Young people like Raiya are hardly threats to society. Though Raiya’s problematic behaviors likely required some kind of professional intervention, they did not warrant arrest or jail time. After all, status offenses are nonviolent, noncriminal acts that are only considered legal violations because of a youth’s status as a minor. And, in the context of the violent assault and the resulting trauma she experienced, Raiya’s actions were only natural.
Across the United States, one million children are arrested evey year. Of those young people, thousands are removed from schools, separated from their families and thrown into secure detention facilities merely for committing common status offenses – like running away and truancy – which comprise more than half of non-criminal court cases. However, as they were in Raiya’s case, both of these behaviors are strong indicators of underlying issues at home or school. These should act as warning signs that intervention is necessary, rather than as reasons for arrest.
Many of the children involved in the juvenile court system have emotional or learning needs that are not being met. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Harsh conditions and invasive supervision inside detention facilities can exacerbate mental health symptoms for [youth] with serious emotional disturbances or a history of trauma or abuse.” For example, Raiya’s actions were likely manifestations of depression and other mental health issues with which many system-involved youth struggle. School districts are not only better equipped than courts to conduct psychological evaluations or provide counseling, they are also required by law to identify students with disabilities and provide them with appropriate services.
Contrary to the juvenile system’s stated goal of rehabilitation, court involvement unnecessarily exacerbates underlying problems by delaying children’s access to critical services. Additionally, the process of arrest, prosecution and adjudication can easily damage relationships between children and the adults in their lives, since they are often positioned as adverse parties in the proceedings.
Notwithstanding such detrimental impacts on the welfare of children, 25 states – including Virginia – permit judges to jail children simply for disobeying any valid court order (VCO). So, for example, in states that use VCOs, if a judge orders a child to attend and behave while in school to comply with probation, that child becomes subject to the whims of the school principal, probation officers and judges, who assess compliance. As a result, a child might be jailed for cheating on a test or even for failing to make his or her bed.
Overreliance on courts and detention facilities is more likely to harm than help vulnerable children. Detention isolates children from existing support systems. Moreover, any helpful service or support a child may receive while incarcerated, such as developing a positive bond with a therapist, will be abruptly cut off when that child returns to the community. This is entirely counterproductive to these children’s health and wellbeing; it is hardly surprising that many leave the juvenile system at greater risk than when they entered it.
Put simply, incarcerating children for status offenses and nonviolent misdemeanors is bad public policy. It does not ensure public safety, and it runs counter to the juvenile system’s goal of rehabilitation. Finally, it is expensive: the cost of incarcerating children in facilities in Arkansas, for example, is roughly $70,000 per child each year. A study of the three largest school districts in Massachusetts determined that the cost of housing, feeding and caring for prison inmates is nearly three times that of educating public school students.
Children’s behavior must be approached with an understanding of young people’s developmental needs. Accordingly, unless it is absolutely necessary to ensure their safety or the safety of others, we should stop incarcerating young people for status offenses. Instead, we should invest in more reliable, sensible solutions that empower families, schools and community-based providers to develop a robust continuum of services designed to help, rather than harm, the most vulnerable among us.
*Name has been changed to protect the person’s identity