Matthew T. Mangino: A first step: Decriminalizing status offenses
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Being a kid is difficult. For many young teens, misbehaving can be part of normal development. Teens need to explore and take risks to understand social and personal boundaries. This process is not new — it has been around since time immemorial.
Why are we criminalizing the “normal” behavior of teenagers?
In 2014, according to a new study by the Vera Institute, there were more than 100,000 cases in the U.S. in which kids were sent to court for status offenses. A status offense is conduct that is only illegal by virtue of the person’s status as a minor.
Status offenses include such things as truancy, running away, curfew violations, underage drinking and the catch-all offense of incorrigibility — repeatedly defying parents or teachers. The term status offense implies that a kid has committed a crime, just by virtue of age. Yet, they are anything but criminal. Kids — especially teenagers — are known to act up or disobey adults, and engaging in status offense behaviors is not uncommon.
These are not actions that most people imagine would land a kid in the juvenile justice system. Unfortunately, everyday teenagers nationwide are handcuffed, taken to court, or locked up for status offenses.
The Vera Institute study, “Just Kids: When Misbehaving is a Crime” explores the behaviors of young people. The behaviors may stem from a variety of factors that can range from normal adolescent development to underlying problems that need closer attention.
However, families, schools and communities frustrated with rebellious kids turn to the justice system. The study points out, unfortunate, but often occurring scenarios when dealing with teens: School officials calling on law enforcement when kids fight in class; police officers taking runaway kids to detention facilities when there is nowhere else to take them; and parents seeking out courts to get help for children they perceive as out of control.
This process of moving disruptive students from the principal's office to the courthouse is known as the school-to-prison pipeline. When young people are criminalized for their behavior in schools, exposed to law enforcement — and the rest of the criminal justice system — at an early age, they become more likely to interact with that system in the future. According to the U.S. Department of Education's Civil Rights Data Collection during the 2011-2012 school year, schools referred approximately 260,000 students to law enforcement, and approximately 92,000 students were arrested on school property during the school day or at school-sponsored events.
Such a punitive approach has detrimental consequences. According to the Vera Institute study, “it criminalizes kids for misbehaviors that pose little to no risk to public safety and may punish them for developmental changes and service needs that are beyond their control.”
When it comes to the school building, “You have to differentiate the security issue and the discipline issue,” Michael Nash, the former presiding judge of juvenile court in Los Angeles and former president of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges told the New York Times. “Once the kids get involved in the court system, it’s a slippery slope downhill.”
Some communities have realized the ill effect of criminalizing status offenses. Local courts have adopted diversion programs for offenses such as underage drinking or disorderly conduct. However, the continued, and increasing, presence of law enforcement in schools and the eagerness of school administrators to push school discipline in the direction of the police need to be addressed.
The study summed it up this way, “The misuse of courts for status offense cases is not inevitable. Changing the nation’s approach will require a concerted effort from all the agencies that play a role in working with kids.” A laudable goal and one that is not out of reach.
— Matthew T. Mangino is of counsel with Luxenberg, Garbett, Kelly & George P.C. His book “The Executioner’s Toll, 2010” was released by McFarland Publishing. You can reach him at www.mattmangino.com and follow him on Twitter at @MatthewTMangino.