Don’t Lock Up Status Offenders

Although the rate of youth incarceration is declining nationally, there are still too many youth who are locked up for behavior that should not be considered criminal. Too often, nonviolent status offenses, such as skipping school or running away from home, get youth in trouble simply because they are minors.

For example, in West Virginia, an astounding 40 percent of all juvenile court referrals are for the status offense of skipping school. In the last decade, the state’s punitive approach to truancy has led to a 255 percent increase in the number of youth removed from their homes for missing school.

Studies have shown that detaining children for status offenses puts them at risk of physical and sexual assault, causes long-term trauma, leads to deeper involvement in the justice system, and fails to address underlying issues that led to the offenses.

The American Civil Liberties Union, a Public Welfare Foundation grantee, has been working with local groups in West Virginia, including the ACLU of West Virginia, to address this issue. Recently, the ACLU advocated successfully for a new state law that requires community- and school-based interventions for youth before they can be referred to juvenile court for being truant. In addition, the new law doubles the number of unexcused absences that land students in court.

West Virginia is not the only state wrestling with this issue. A new report by another grantee, Coalition of Youth Justice, based in Washington, DC, shows that more than half of the states allow children to be detained for repeated status offenses.

The report, Status Offenses, A National Survey, found that only a handful of states, including Washington, Kentucky, Arkansas, and Colorado, accounted for a majority of cases of youth being detained for status offenses during a one-year span, mostly from 2010 – 2012. However, judges in 26 states and Washington, DC can legally detain repeat status offenders.

Still, the report notes that, like West Virginia, states are increasingly recognizing the importance of seeking community- and school-based responses to youth misbehaviors, rather than detention.


To see the full report, click here.

For an account of the new West Virginia law, click here.


The Public Welfare Foundation supports efforts to advance justice and opportunity for people in need. These efforts honor the Foundation’s core values of racial equity, economic well-being, and fundamental fairness for all. The Foundation looks for strategic points where its funds can make a significant difference and improve lives through policy and system reform that results in transformative change. For more information, visit Follow the Foundation on Twitter or on Facebook.

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