Projects: Status Offense System Reform Initiative

Vera’s Center on Youth Justice is partnering with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) to provide tailored, data-driven, and best-practice-informed training and technical assistance that will help jurisdictions improve their responses to the needs of youth engaged in status offenses—behaviors, such as running away or skipping school, which are prohibited under law only because of an person’s status as a minor. This project is complemented by additional funding from the MacArthur Foundation to support Vera’s Status Offense Reform Center (SORC).

In December 2013, Vera launched SORC as an online clearinghouse to guide policymakers’ efforts to keep youth who commit status offenses out of the juvenile justice system and safely in their homes and communities. To accomplish this goal, Vera has produced many resources designed to expand the field’s knowledge of community-based approaches to status offenses, including a toolkit to assist jurisdictions undertaking reform; profiles of different jurisdictions’ efforts to implement reform; and a library of information related to status offense behaviors, system responses, and reform efforts nationwide.

Using SORC’s many resources as a foundation, Vera will guide system stakeholders in three jurisdictions through the process of developing a tailored, community-based response to youth engaged in status offense behaviors.  To that end, Vera will:  (1) identify jurisdictions poised for reform through an application process; (2) support the development of a multidisciplinary and multi-agency task force to champion and oversee reform in each site; (3) assess the strengths and gaps in current status offense processing in each jurisdiction; (4) assist each site in setting priorities and developing a comprehensive set of strategies to achieve reforms; and (5) provide opportunities for active cross-site engagement and learning.

Why keep youth charged with status offenses out of the juvenile justice system?

As states and localities work to safely and cost-effectively divert youth from the juvenile justice system, responding to status offenders outside of court is a natural first step. Using courts for these cases can have negative consequences since they are often slow to respond and may cause originally minor crises to escalate. Courts are not designed to assess the underlying circumstances that could be driving a youth’s behavior. It is important to keep in mind that, for many cases, youth are still developing socially and emotionally, forming their identities, and seeking independence and autonomy—factors that can play heavily in committing status offenses. But judges often feel stymied by their limited options when faced with a youth who is acting out and parents who feel they cannot handle and safeguard their child. Consequently, thousands of young people charged with these behaviors end up in locked facilities each year, where they encounter and learn from youth who have committed more serious offenses.

Investing in community-based responses to status offenses can provide youth and families with more meaningful and lasting support, while also greatly reducing court caseloads and lowering system costs.

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Project Director, Center on Youth Justice