Teens who screw up but haven't committed a crime often end up locked up anyway, accused of "status offenses" that include delinquency, underage drinking or even running away from home.
The federal government back in 1974 tried to clamp down on the use of status offenses to lock up youths, on the theory that commingling them with hardened, dangerous peers does far more harm than good, but exceptions continue to be allowed on a large scale, notes The New York Times in an editorial.
Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley has coauthored a bipartisan bill, which The Times says would "phase out the status-offense exception, increase educational opportunities in detention and help states reduce persistent racial disparities in juvenile incarceration."
In 1974, The Times notes, Congress sought to prevent states from locking up teens with the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, but an exception allowed large-scale evasion of the act's intent.
"The act, built on an awareness that young people are different, offers federal dollars to states that house juvenile inmates in their own facilities or, where that is not possible, keep them strictly separated from the adults. It also bars the counterproductive practice of throwing children in jail for 'status offenses' like skipping school, running away or violating a curfew — behavior for which no adult would be punished," The Times notes.
The Deseret News addressed status offenses last year, noting that roughly a quarter of youths locked up under status offenses are mixed with kids who have committed violent crimes, including murder and sex offenses.
“Why in the world would we lock up kids for these kinds of offenses when we know that if you commingle these kids with high-risk kids, it makes things worse?” asked Shawn Marsh, chief program officer for Juvenile Law at the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Justices, in an interview with the Deseret News. “But we still have judges today who say, ‘I just have to teach them a lesson.’ "
“As it stands now, the law basically says, ‘We don’t think it is a good idea to lock up status offenders,’” Marsh said. “We need it to come out and say, ‘you will not lock up status offenders.’ ”