By Laura Furr
Even for minor offenses, when youth appear in juvenile court or are placed in confinement they are more likely to re-offend upon release than if they receive community-based services. A new report from the Vera Institute for Justice reveals that approximately 137,000 status offense cases nationally were handled in juvenile court in 2010 rather than by community-based services. ‘Status offense’ is a term for those things many of us did before our 18th birthday that got us in trouble – skipping school, drinking or running away when things at home just became too much. While the report indicates this is a 33 percent drop from what it was in 2002, it is still 137,000 missed opportunities to address the causes of a young person’s challenging behavior in their community.
Cities have the crucial responsibility of creating a safe, healthy environment for children. The Vera report, From Courts to Communities: The Right Response to Truancy, Running Away, and Other Status Offenses makes several recommendations that can help cities, often in conjunction with state juvenile justice agencies, courts and community-based organizations, address status offenses in a way that helps create this environment. As part of its new Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform project, NLC is translating these recommendations for implementation in cities.
First, cities can help divert more youth from the juvenile court system by equipping parents and those with routine direct interaction with young people through schools, neighborhood organizations, faith-based organizations and community facilities to recognize the first signs of trauma or trouble.
Parents sometimes turn to the juvenile court when they have been unable to find or access community-based services at the first signs of trouble. Cities can greatly expedite access to these needed services by creating a truly accessible, up-to-date and comprehensive directory of services for families and community members.
Cities can also ensure that their citizens are receiving the best possible services by disseminating best practices to community organizations and encouraging, through contract requirements and policy initiatives, careful screening and assessment of status offense outcomes.
Finally, cities need a broad understanding of how their children and families are faring. Cities can develop measurable goals for how all children can succeed and measure those achievements routinely and consistently.
As one example, in 2002 New York City began handling status offenders through a unique program of assessment and referral to community-based services housed in the mayor’s office, rather than an office of the courts. This led to a dramatic reduction in the number of youth charged with status offenses who ended up in juvenile court. The program succeeds at careful assessment of a child and family’s strengths and needs, quick referral to community-based service providers appropriate for the needs and tracking the success of the entire system.
Through the Municipal Leadership for Juvenile Justice Reform project, NLC is seeking more examples of best practices for improving outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system in order to share these successes with city leaders across the country.
More information about this report, From Courts to Communities: The Right Response to Truancy, Running Away and Other Status Offenses, and resources on this topic are available at the Vera Institute of Justice Status Offense Resource Center’s newly-released website www.statusoffensereform.org.