A status crime is defined as an action deemed illegal for a youth but not for an adult. A youth is usually defined as anyone between ten and seventeen years old. Status crimes include alcohol and tobacco use, curfew violations, habitual truancy, running away from home, and refusing to follow parents’ rules. The intent of the definition is early intervention, before the youth starts to engage in serious delinquency. Specifically, the goal is to decriminalize specific behaviors and to reduce the stigma associated with being labeled delinquent while acknowledging and enforcing rules applicable only to juveniles.

Origins, Development, and Historical Evolution

In 1646, Massachusetts passed its Stubborn Child Law, which allowed children to be put to death for not obeying their parents. This was the first legislation identifying an act illegal only for minors (Hess and Drowns 2004). It was commonly accepted that children under eight were unable to act in a knowingly criminal manner, and that children between eight and fourteen could distinguish good from evil but might not be able to distinguish right from wrong (Hess and Drowns 2004). Youth under eight who committed minor acts would likely be returned home. Those eight and older who committed serious acts would enter the justice system more formally.

After the Industrial Revolution, the family declined as an agent of social control. A fear of “dangerous and wayward youth” began to grow (Platt 1977). Increasingly harsh treatment of juvenile offenders in houses of refuge, reform schools, and foster homes led to the Child Savers movement, the thrust of which was that wayward children were fundamentally good, suffered from poor environmental influences, and should not be subjected to the harsh criminal justice treatments of adults. By 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Illinois, solidifying the belief that children should be considered differently than adults. Within this court system, differences among offenses were established, distinguishing criminal from less serious offenses. The less serious offenses came to be known as status offenses.

In 1961, California became the first state to decriminalize status offenses. New York followed in 1962. States moved away from identifying youth as simply “incorrigible” and created terminology to identify those needing services for committing status offenses such as curfew violation, truancy, running away, and alcohol or tobacco use. These classifications carried with them a criminal justice or social services response. Included were PINS (Person in Need of Supervision), CINS or CHINS (Children in Need of Supervision), MINS (Minor in Need of Supervision), JINS (Juveniles in Need of Supervision), and FINS (Families in Need of Supervision). In 1967, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement criticized the institutional confinement of status offenders, saying that they were more likely in need of services than of criminal justice. In 1974, the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act was passed, with the explicit goal, among others, of reducing such confinements. In 2002, the act was reaffirmed. All states and territories must comply with the act to receive social services grants (U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention 2003).

Status Crimes and Trends

Tobacco and Alcohol

In 2004, 28% of eighth graders, 41% of tenth graders, and 53% of twelfth graders reported having smoked cigarettes. Survey results also show that in the thirty days before the 2004 survey, those figures were 9%, 16%, and 25%, respectively. This increase as youth age is true for both males and females. Use is lowest for blacks and highest for whites, with Hispanics falling between. Use declined by more than 35% among eighth graders, nearly 22% among tenth graders, and close to 15% among twelfth graders between 1991 and 2003 (Johnston et al. 2005).

Alcohol use also tends to increase as youth age. Survey results indicate that 14.5% of eighth graders, 35% of tenth, and almost 52% of twelfth graders reported having been drunk in the previous year. These percentages, however, also decreased between 1991 and 2003 (Johnston et al. 2005). Lifetime use declined as well, with the greatest reduction (35%) among eighth graders.

Arrests related to alcohol use among juveniles decreased between 1980 and 2003 (National Center for Juvenile Justice 2005). For liquor law violation, male arrests declined 22%, but female arrests rose almost 24%. White, black, American Indian, and Asian arrests for youth drunkenness all decreased between 1980 and 2003. Arrests for youth liquor law violations increased 4% among blacks, nearly 16% among American Indians, and almost 41% among Asians.

Running Away and Curfew Violations

Arrests for running away generally decreased between 1980 and 2003, whereas those for curfew violations increased. Arrest rates for running away dropped by 17% overall (National Center for Juvenile Justice 2005). Male and female rates were similar. Across racial groups, however, only white rates declined. Asian rates increased most dramatically, at 92%. It is important to note that these rates are adjusted for changing population sizes. According to the juvenile court statistics for 2000 (Puzzanchera et al. 2004), most runaways appearing in court were female. Most were also white.

Arrest rates for curfew and loitering violations are combined because enforcement is also often in tandem. Since 1980, curfew and loitering arrests have increased by 48%. Rates were higher for females (91%) than for males (34%). By race, arrest rates for whites and Asians increased nearly 50%, and for blacks and American

Indians by 39% and 15%, respectively (National Center for Juvenile Justice 2005). An increase in arrests for curfew violations may reflect an increase in police attention to the provision rather than a change in youth behavior.

Truancy and Incorrigibility

Juvenile court statistics for 2000 (Puzzanchera et al. 2004) show that most truants are between the ages of fourteen and fifteen, slightly more likely to be male, and predominantly white. Those brought into the court system for incorrigibility (also known as ungovernability) were also between fourteen and fifteen and tended to be male. Approximately 72% were white, 26% were black, and the remaining 2% all other groups.

Police Response

Police often have more options when addressing status offenses. Typically the response will be influenced by local community standards, the local justice system, and officer discretion. Other factors may include the youth’s age, gender, race, demeanor, family situation, prior record or contact with police, and the availability of appropriate services. The response may be to take no action, to refer the juvenile to social services, or to take the youth into custody and petition the youth to the juvenile court. Those petitioned to court may be released to their parent or guardian or detained in a juvenile facility.

Academic and Theoretical Debates

One notable debate related to status offenses touches on the “net widening effect”—when youth who would otherwise have been sent home to parents are instead taken into custody and the juvenile justice system. One opinion suggests that formally processed juveniles gain status among delinquent peers, are labeled delinquent by others (including parents, teachers, and community members), and subsequently adopt delinquent behavior. Another perspective links status offending to future criminal behaviors and social problems—viewing truancy with dropping out, or alcohol use with criminal drug use, to take two examples. Last, violating curfews and running away—both of which put youth ”at risk”—are thought by some to increase both criminal behavior and victimization. Advocates see status offenses as an opportunity for early intervention.

A second debate is that between proponents of get tough policies and those supporting treatment and rehabilitation. Although the juvenile justice system seems founded on the notion of a second chance and on rehabilitation, even the child savers were historically tough on youth and believed in combining punishment with training. This more conservative perspective views punishment as a deterrent and holds that youth will view the system as an empty threat if their crimes carry no serious consequences. Lowering of the age for treatment of juveniles as adults and the large proportion of youth taken into custody and then sent to juvenile court are examples of the conservative perspective. A more liberal view sees status offenses as symptomatic of a child in need and attempts to address the root causes of the behavior. Community-based sanctions, the deinstitutionalization and decriminalization of status offenses, and the use of formal terms such as CHINS (Children in Need of Services) or PINS (Persons in Need of Services) to identify youth ”at risk” and in need of early intervention are examples of the liberal view.

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