Introduction

Since the 1970s, local and state courts, as well as state and federal policymakers, have sought to distinguish youth who commit delinquent offenses from youth who commit status offenses. Status offenses are non-delinquent/non-criminal infractions that would not be offenses but for the youth’s status as a minor.  This includes running away, failing to attend school (truancy), alcohol or tobacco possession, curfew violations and circumstances where youth are found to be beyond the control of their parent/guardian(s), which some jurisdictions call “ungovernability” or “incorrigibility.”

Status offenses are often symptomatic of underlying personal, familial, community and systemic issues, as well as other, often complex, unmet and unaddressed needs.  Issues that underlie status offense allegations are especially acute for minority youth and adolescent girls. 1  Minority youth identified as status offenders are more likely to have their cases formally petitioned to court than similarly-situated white youth. 2  Research also shows that girls accused of status offenses are petitioned to court more often and detained twice as long as boys. 3

Until the mid-1970s, it was common for the juvenile delinquency system to handle status offense cases.  Therefore, children were subject to all dispositional or probationary options applied to delinquent youth, including incarceration.  Concerned about the short and long-term effects of detaining and institutionalizing non-delinquent youth, many states began implementing different social service responses.  A handful of states altered their definitions of child neglect or dependency to include status offenses.

In 1974, Congress affirmed and further encouraged state trends toward decriminalizing status offenses by enacting the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) which, among other things, established the Deinstitutionalization of Status Offenders (DSO) core requirement.  In keeping with the DSO core requirement, states receiving federal grants under the JJDPA agreed to prohibit the locked placement of youth charged with status offenses and reform their systems so that youth at risk for, or charged with status offenses, and their families would receive family-and community-based services. In the early years of the JJDPA, between 1974 and 1980, the number of court referrals for status offenses decreased 21% and status offender detentions decreased 50%. 4

The lines, however, between the delinquency system and the status offense system remained blurred and judges and court services professionals expressed concerns that apart from locked confinement there were few dispositional options for youth who commit status behaviors.  Thus, in 1980, a valid court order (VCO) exception was added to the JJDPA, giving judges the authority to “bootstrap” status offenders into the delinquency system and place them in secure confinement if they violated a valid order of the court, i.e., attend school regularly or be home by a certain time. 5   

Today, according to the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), the vast majority of the 56 U.S. states and territories are in compliance with the DSO core requirement, and current detention numbers are drastically fewer than the hundreds of thousands of youth who were detained annually before implementation of the JJDPA. 6  Yet, every year, state and local policies and practice result in the locked detention of thousands of youth charged only with status offenses. In addition, more than half of U.S. states continue to allow use of the VCO exception to detain youth charged with status offenses. 7  OJJDP currently reports approximately 12,000 annual uses of the VCO exception. 8

Almost 20% of detained status offenders and other non-offenders (e.g., youth involved with the child welfare system) are placed in living quarters with youth who have committed murder or manslaughter and 25% are placed in units with felony sex offenders. 10

Research and evidence-based approaches have proven that secure detention of status offenders is ineffective and frequently dangerous. Specifically, research has shown that:

  • Detention facilities are often ill-equipped to address the underlying causes of status offenses.
  • Detention does not serve as a deterrent to subsequent status-offending and/or delinquent behavior.
  • Detained youth are often held in overcrowded, understaffed facilities— environments that can breed violence and exacerbate unmet needs. 9
  • Almost 20% of detained status offenders and other non-offenders (e.g., youth involved with the child welfare system) are placed in living quarters with youth who have committed murder or manslaughter and 25% are placed in units with felony sex offenders. 10
  • Placing youth who commit status offenses in locked detention facilities jeopardizes their safety and well-being, and may increase the likelihood of delinquent or criminal behavior. 
  • Removing youth from their families and communities prohibits them from developing the strong social networks and support systems necessary to transition successfully from adolescence to adulthood. 11


Given that states and localities are primarily responsible for achieving the goals of the DSO core requirement, and that there is a well-supported movement to better respond to the unmet and complex needs of children and youth without court involvement or detention, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice joined forces with several national organizations and experts to develop the National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses (“the National Status Offense Standards,” “National Standards” or “Standards”). The Standards aim to promote ]qtip:best practices|, based in research and social service approaches, to better engage and support youth and families in need of assistance.  Given what we know, the National Standards call for an absolute prohibition on the detention of status offenders and seek to divert them entirely from the delinquency system by promoting the most appropriate services for families and the least restrictive placement options for status offending youth. The Standards also promote uniform practice and policy across the states, as well as high quality and equitable services and representation for status offending youth and their families.

The National Standards build on the original intent of the JJDPA DSO core requirement, recent efforts to eliminate the VCO exception in Congress, 12 and the “safety, permanency and well-being” framework set forth in the Adoption and Safe Families Act of 1997 (ASFA). 13  Like ASFA’s focus on the child’s best interest, the Standards call for system responses that keep youth and their families’ best interests at the center of the intervention. Individually and collectively, the Standards promote system reforms and changes in system culture, as well as the workforce needed to ensure adoption and implementation of empirically-supported policies, programs and practices that effectively meet the needs of youth, their families and the community.

"The National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses [is] perhaps the most comprehensive report on the subject to date."

Hon. Michael Nash
Presiding Judge
Juvenile Court at Los Angeles Superior Court

To capitalize on the value of peer expertise, the National Standards were developed by the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ) in partnership with the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) and a team of experts from various jurisdictions, disciplines and perspectives, including juvenile and family court judges, child welfare and juvenile defense attorneys, juvenile corrections and detention administrators, community-based service providers, and practitioners with expertise in responding to gender-specific needs (see Acknowledgements for list).  Many hours were devoted to discussing, debating and constructing a set of ambitious yet implementable standards that are portable, easily understood, and designed to spur and inform state and local policy and practice reforms.  Once drafted, CJJ invited review and input into the initial draft from additional key stakeholders, and secured several partnerships for the purpose of promoting and supporting the Standards’ broad dissemination and implementation plan.

The National Standards aim to inspire and assist individuals responsible for how local and state systems respond on a macro and micro-level to the needs of youth at risk for, or charged with status offenses, and their families.  The Standards’ key audiences include policymakers, legislators and systems design professionals, as well as day-to-day decision makers and practitioners working with youth who commit status offenses and their families.  These audiences include the following, among others:

  • Juvenile and family court judges and magistrates
  • State and local court administrators and court personnel
  • Case workers and supervisors, case intake workers and probation staff
  • Prosecutors
  • Attorneys representing status offenders and guardians ad litem
  • Juvenile justice and child welfare administrators
  • Administrators of public and private residential facilities where status offenders are held
  • Public and private nonresidential community-based service providers
  • Mental health administrators and professionals
  • Educators, school administrators, school boards and guidance counselors
  • Runaway and homeless youth program staff
  • Law enforcement officers, including school resource officers
  • Policymakers, state and local government officials, legislators, and state advisory boards


To help each reader chart a path to implementation of each standard, the National Standards are organized to maximize understanding as follows:

  1. The Standard to be adopted is articulated in full – “the black letter.”
  2. The need and underlying argument for the Standard is presented.
  3. One or more concrete practice or policy actions items are recommended that readers can take to advance and implement the Standard.

1 Arthur, P.J. & Waugh, R. (2009). “Status Offenses and the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act: The Exception Swallowed the Rule.” Seattle Journal for Social Justice: Homeless Youth and the Law. Vol. 7, Issue 2. 

2 Puzzanchera, C., Adams, B., & Sarah Hockenberry (2012). Juvenile Court Statistics 2009. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice.

3 Id.

4Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. (Fall/Winter 1995). “Deinstitutionalizing Status Offenders: A Record of Progress.” Juvenile Justice, II (2). Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice.

5 Bootstrapping is a practice whereby courts re-label status offenses as delinquent offenses or punish status offending behaviors with punishments otherwise reserved for delinquent youth.

6 Unofficial data provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

7 Hornberger, N. G., (Summer 2010). “Improving Outcomes for Status Offenders in the JJDPA Reauthorization.” Juvenile and Family Justice Today. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Available at: http://www.juvjustice.org/media/announcements/announcement_link_156.pdf.

8Id.

9 Holman, B. & Ziedenberg, J. (2006). The Dangers of Detention.  Washington, DC: Justice Policy Institute. 

10 Sedlak, A. J., & McPherson, K. S. (May 2010). “Conditions of Confinement: Findings from the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement.” Washington, DC: Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, U.S. Department of Justice.

11 Nelson, D. (2008). “A Road Map for Juvenile Justice Reform.” 2008 National KIDS COUNT Data Book.  Baltimore, MD: Annie E. Casey Foundation.

12 S. 3155, The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2008. Available at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-110s3155rs/pdf/BILLS-110s3155rs.pdf. S. 678, The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Reauthorization Act of 2009. Available at: http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/BILLS-111s678rs/pdf/BILLS-111s678rs.pdf.

13 Adoption and Safe Families Act, 42 U.S.C. Section 1305, et. seq. (1997).