Status offenses are noncriminal acts considered wrongful or chargeable only when committed by a minor. They involve restrictions placed on minors so they will be more likely to attend school, return home at a safe hour, or avoid using nicotine, alcohol, or illegal drugs. Juveniles charged with a status offense:
- are accorded the same due-process rights as a juvenile accused of a crime.
- have a formal juvenile record if the court decides during its adjudication (guilt or innocence) phase that the youth committed a status offense. This type of record sometimes can be expunged from the court’s files when the juvenile reaches the state’s age of majority.
- are possibly assigned a risk factor by the court. In other words, once a juvenile is found to have committed one status offense, if that juvenile comes before the court accused of another status offense or a crime, his or her risk factor for being a repeat offender may justify a stricter punishment in the second case.
The Most Common Juvenile Status Offenses
Though the laws governing status offenses vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, virtually all states and municipalities have laws addressing:
- Curfew violations—These laws prohibit minors from being outside without an adult during certain hours. Many jurisdictions have different time restrictions based on the age of the minor, with greater limitations for younger persons.
- Truancy—Most localities make it a juvenile offense to miss or skip school without a valid reason, regardless of whether the minor has parental permission to do so.
- Possession or use of tobacco—Federal law bans the use of tobacco products by anyone under the age of 18. Many states have even stricter laws.
- Possession or use of alcohol—Typically referred to as a “minor in possession” offense, such laws govern the use of intoxicating beverages by persons under the age of 21.
- Running away from home—A few states have laws allowing persons under the age of 18 to be charged for leaving home without permission and staying away from home overnight.
- Being “ungovernable”—A minority of states make it a crime for a person under the age of 18 to engage in regular patterns of disobedience, typically including such behavior as using alcohol or tobacco at home or repeatedly running away.
When a juvenile court finds that a youth has committed a status offense, a number of possible punishments may be imposed, which vary from state to state:
- The juvenile may be given deferred adjudication—This means there will be no formal probationary oversight and no formal ruling that the juvenile committed a status offense, provided the juvenile does not commit another for a specified period of time
- The juvenile may be placed on probation. A juvenile placed on probation must not commit any further offenses and must regularly check in with court representatives; however, they are allowed to remain living at home with their parents. The length of the probationary period usually depends on the juvenile’s prior appearances before the court or the severity of the current offense. If a juvenile on probation commits another offense, they may face further punishment, including placement at a state school or locked facility.
- Other penalties—Other common penalties for status offense violations include mandatory counseling or education classes, placement in a foster home or group home, payment of fines, and suspension of the juvenile’s driver’s license.
The trend over the last few decades has been to punish status offenses without incarcerating minors or placing them in detention, as exposing minors to such conditions can often lead to more serious criminal behavior.
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act
Courts today focus on prosecuting violent gang members more than prosecuting juveniles who commit status offenses. In 1974, with the passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, Congress imposed a greater uniformity and reasonableness to the handling of status offenders.
The Act’s goals include:
- discouraging the confinement of status offenders, even when courts find that they committed an offense;
- making sure that juveniles entitled to stay under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction are not incarcerated within “sight or sound” of adults;
- carefully checking that minority juveniles do not represent a disproportionate number of those detained based on the local population; and
- creating the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which conducts research and provides training and funding to state and local juvenile delinquency prevention programs.
All states, territories and the District of Columbia are required to comply with these provisions.
For further information about programs and resources provided by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, see our page on Juvenile Programs.
Child in Need of Supervision Petitions
A parent, school official, or police officer may file a Child in Need of Supervision (CHINS or CINS) petition (in some states, a Person in Need of Supervision (PINS) petition)) with a court in an effort to help rehabilitate a juvenile who continues to commit status offenses such as the following:
- running away from home
- failing to obey curfew
- acting violently towards parents or guardians
- skipping school regularly
- abusing alcohol
- loitering in areas forbidden by the police
The juvenile and their parents typically must sign the petition in the presence of a probation officer, who is responsible for trying to help the family address the wrongful behavior. Typically, once admitted to a CINS program, parents attend classes to learn about parenting skills, communication techniques, and child development. Juveniles learn about making good choices, communicating their feelings, resolving conflict, and various other positive development skills.
In some cases, a judge may review a CINS petition and decide that the child should not remain in the custody of their parents and instead should be placed in the care of a relative or a state or private agency. A judge also may order psychiatric, psychological, social, or medical services for the child.