Skipping School Shouldn’t Lead to Detention: Ending the Valid Court Order Exception for Status Offenses

January 3, 2018

As kids across the country head back to school, with the promise and excitement of a new year. Yet as the school year progresses, some of these kids may find themselves getting arrested, heading to court, or even being detained for skipping school, acting out, or running away.

These common misbehaviors—also known as status offenses—are only against the law for kids under the age of 18. In 2014 alone, at least 100,000 kids were processed in courts for status offense charges, with nearly half due to skipping school. In reality, we know that the number is likely much higher, because of gaps in how states and localities report the data.

VERA2Regardless of the numbers, though, using the juvenile justice system to handle adolescent misbehavior makes no sense—from a pragmatic, moral, or cost-effectiveness perspective. Kids in adolescence are undergoing an extraordinary period of development, where exploratory, risk-taking behavior and impulsivity are not uncommon. When such behaviors do raise concern and require more attention from adults, providing guidance, support, and services is more effective than punishment.

Meanwhile, using justice resources—particularly when kids end up in detention facilities—for non-criminal behaviors is both incredibly costly and harmful: kids are more likely to experience physical and mental health problems, drop out of school, and have trouble finding employment. The harms of detention are further magnified for kids who are already underserved and subject to harsh biases, including girls, kids in poor communities, kids of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and gender non-conforming (LGBT/GNC) kids.

Due in part to these reasons, the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974 expressly prohibited the incarceration of youth charged with status offenses. However, the law was later amended to include the Valid Court Order (VCO) exception, which allows judges to sentence youth to locked detention for violating a direct order from the court, such as “stop running away from home,” or “attend school regularly.” While many states prohibit or do not use the VCO exception, it remains an option in over two dozen states and was still used to confine youth more than 7,000 times in 2014.

Thankfully, there seems to be a growing drumbeat across the country to end punitive responses to minor misbehaviors. In places that have successfully transformed their approach, this movement has often started by permanently closing off the juvenile justice system to such cases and repositioning other systems and local communities to promote and invest in a robust array of preventive programs and diversion efforts. States like Connecticut, New York, and Florida have demonstrated that immediately referring cases to social services in their communities instead of court can reduce court caseloads, lower system costs, and provide more meaningful and lasting support to children and families.

As it considers passage of the JJDPA, Congress should take a hard look at eliminating the VCO exception. By doing so, we can nurture communities and create child-serving systems that believe in the promise of all kids and help them grow into healthy adulthood.

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Vidhya Ananthakrishnan is a Project Director in the Center on Youth Justice at the Vera Institute of Justice in New York.

This blog was written for Act4JJ and SparkAction as part of the #JJDPAmatters blog project.  Published September 16, 2017 and updated January 2018.

Vidhya Ananthakrishnan