National Status Offense Standards Help Build Momentum for Reform

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By Annie Salsich
Director, Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice

Momentum continues to build nationally for ways to limit the reach of the juvenile justice system, relying less on court interventions and incarceration and more on safe and effective community-based options.  This momentum makes the experience of youth who commit status offenses—a range of behaviors, such as running away from home, skipping school, or violating curfew, which are prohibited under law only because of an individual’s status as a minor—all the more striking. Not only is the justice system ill-equipped to identify and address the underlying needs of these young people, it does so at enormous personal, social, and taxpayer cost. Recognizing the need for a more effective response to behaviors that are problematic, but non-criminal in nature, many states and localities have implemented immediate, family-focused alternatives to court that provide more meaningful and lasting support to children and families in need of help.

This week, these local and state efforts took to the national stage, following the release of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice (CJJ)’s National Standards for the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses.  Developed in consultation with experts in the field, including Vera Institute’s Center on Youth Justice, the Standards draw upon best practices and present a multi-faceted approach to addressing status offenses at both the local and state levels.  While there are important sections that focus on how to prevent the use of detention and out of home placement once a youth enters court, Section II is where the heart of the message lies.  This section goes further upstream, detailing how different actors within status offense systems can and should respond to families and youth in need of immediate assistance without resorting to court.  What better way to avoid the incarceration of non-delinquent youth than to avoid court involvement altogether?  Much of what is captured in this section reflects elements common to successful status offense reform efforts that we at Vera have seen and encouraged through our own technical assistance in more than 30 jurisdictions across the country, most recently as part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Models for Change Initiative.

By disseminating standards, CJJ is aiming to ensure that the implementation of such efforts is not limited to scattered communities, and that status-offending youth everywhere will receive the support they need. As jurisdictions review the Standards and begin or continue to reform their own status offense systems, Vera’s Status Offense Reform Center (SORC) can be a resource.  Next week, we will launch the online reform center to serve as a one-stop shop for policymakers and practitioners looking not only for information on why to keep young people who commit status offenses out of the juvenile justice system and safely in their homes and communities, but how to do so.  We hope that the center, together with the Standards, sheds light on a topic and a population that hasn’t gotten nearly enough attention in the past. 

Annie Salsich joined the Vera Institute of Justice in February 2003 as a project analyst for Affirm, a school safety demonstration project in New York City. Currently she is the Director of Vera’s Center on Youth Justice, she provides technical assistance and support to numerous jurisdictions across the United States, helping government officials develop, implement, and sustain safe and effective ways to reduce reliance on incarceration, decrease local and state expenditures, and ensure substantively sound outcomes for young people and their families in the community. In particular, she oversees projects that: (1) help localities prevent juvenile justice involvement for status offenders—children who have not committed a crime, but are chronically misbehaving by missing school, running away, or simply acting out to such a degree that their parents are at a loss for how to control them; (2) provide strategic planning support to officials interested in improving their juvenile detention and correctional systems; and (3) support officials in collecting and actively using data to guide meaningful reform efforts.