Skip over navigation

Journal Issue: The Juvenile Court Volume 6 Number 3 Winter 1996

Status Offenses
David J. Steinhart


Public policy is unsettled with regard to juvenile status offenders—children who are subject to juvenile court jurisdiction for noncriminal behavior such as running away from home, incorrigibility, truancy, and curfew violation. In 1974, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act initiated a national policy of status offender "deinstitutionalization," supporting the development of community-based treatment programs and prohibiting incarceration of these youths. In the following years, most states embraced this policy, sharply reducing status offender detention levels.

This article describes factors that have recently worked to erode the federal and state commitment to a policy of status offender deinstitutionalization. These factors include widespread failure to develop adequate services for youths and families; the tragic deaths of runaway youths; rising fear of juvenile crime; and new statehouse majorities promoting agendas of youth discipline and accountability. The article references recent surveys and press reports on the number of runaways, truants, and curfew violators in the United States. In the author's view, policymakers today are torn between their desire to provide services to at-risk youths and families and public pressure to respond to all forms of youth misbehavior with tough new sanctions, including the incarceration of status offenders.