Power of One
Rehabilitation or punishment? What is the juvenile justice system’s opinion about the young people involved in it? Many adults believe that young people are naïve and do not know enough about the world. However, the same adults believe in jailing those so called “naïve” young people for actions that most adults have done as a teenager, labeling those actions as status offenses.
Status offenses are noncriminal actions that are considered a law violation if a minor has committed them: truancy (not attending school), breaking curfew, running away (we believe youth are ‘running to’ safety) are examples of status offenses. Legislators at the federal level have worked to improve the juvenile justice system and have taken steps to shift from punishment to rehabilitation and prevention. In an effort to do so, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) was passed in 1974 by the U.S. Congress and reauthorized in 2002 and again in December 2018. This legislation prohibited states from jailing status offenders; in 1984, however, this law was undermined by the addition of a Valid Court Order (VCO) exception amendment. A VCO allows states to jail a young person if they violate a court order — these include orders to “stay in your foster care placement” and “go to school regularly.”
The JJDPA was meant to keep status offenders out of jails because the roots of those offenses were societal. The young person is not a public safety risk whatsoever, and
some of these actions are a part of being a teenager. Decades later, statistics suggest that VCOs have been overused by some states. Washington state uses the VCO to jail youth with non-criminal behavior more than any other state in the nation, as 29% of all detentions for status offenses in our country are in Washington state (Juvenile Court Statistics, 2016.)
The VCO was used 1,540 times in 2017 in Washington and, even worse, it has been used inconsistently within the state. Grays Harbor County has the highest use, with 104 detentions in 2017, while Clark County only detained 2 young people in the same time period. Jailing youth for noncriminal behavior is not only expensive, but ineffective. 34% of status offenders in 2016 were detained twice or more in the same year. (Washington State Juvenile Detention Annual Report 2016, 2017)
Jailing youth and young adults for status offenses increases chances of recidivism and the likelihood of them entering the adult justice system. Our justice system disproportionately impacts people of color and our juvenile justice system is not an exception to that. Youth of color represent 67% of juvenile justice population (NAACP, 2014 Study.) Many young advocates, social workers, and even the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges (NCJFCJ) support the elimination of detention for status offenses. NCJFCJ was one of main advocates of the VCO amendment back in 1984. They all recognize that detention is not the solution.
It is worth thinking and asking ourselves, “why are we spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on jailing our young people?” That money could be used for many other effective community-based rehabilitation and prevention programs. Stakeholders must realize that use of the VCO is not doing good, only harm. Therefore, let elimination of detention for all status offenses be a foundation for a juvenile justice system which views youth and young adults as people facing unwanted challenges and not as offenders that need to be punished. Join The Mockingbird Society’s youth advocates in support of eliminating detention for status offenses. Call your legislator and ask for their support with SB 5290 and HB 1434 which will eliminate the use of detention for status offenses.