Juvenile Justice and the Status Offense:

An Justification for the Current System

By Tiffany Rose


Legal History of the Juvenile Justice System

A status offense is the illegal behavior of a child (under the age of 18 years old) although that same behavior would not be criminal if committed by an adult. Such offenses include sexual behavior, alcohol consumption, running away, and truancy. Status offenses and the treatment of these juvenile offenders have been debated throughout the twentieth century. There is great disagreement about the roles that the juvenile courts should play in determining punishments for status offenders. Some are opposed to any criminal justice sanctions for such offenders. However, others believe that the court system established for juvenile discipline is justified in its protection and promotion of safety within the community and towards the children themselves. Although there is a difference between the procedures of the criminal court system and juvenile courts, the laws established to exercise control over juvenile delinquents and status offenses have been continuously developed and improved from the conception of this court in the early 1800s.

The 1838 decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court incorporated parens patriae, and gave the court control over juvenile matters. Today’s juvenile court system’s purpose to protect underprivileged, at-risk youth, is similar to the intent of parens patriae. The courts established reformation schools whose alleged prospect was "reformation and not punishment [in] the end…The object of charity is reformation, by training…inmates to industry…and, above all, by separating them from the corrupting influence of improper associates." In 1838, however, there was no established juvenile court system. Therefore, criminal courts, with their busy schedules overlooked the interior conditions of such institutions. Their knowledge was limited to the accounts of institution managers and thus the maltreatment of juvenile offenders went unnoticed.

In 1899, separate Juvenile Courts were established by in Illinois, under the doctrine of in loco parentis, and spread to all fifty states. The justification for creating a [separate] juvenile court was to stop imprisoning children next to adults because children were different from adults and, therefore, should be held to different standards. Over time, wide differences have been insisted upon between the procedural rights given to adults and those of juveniles. Thus, menial crimes such as fleeing from parental custody, truancy, drinking and smoking by the underaged, all became acts worthy of intervention for the juvenile courts. Psychological, as well legal, experts agreed, then as they do now, that this sort of behavior is usually, in most cases, a precursor of more serious crimes. Therefore, supervision and imprisonment of these status offenders seemed an effective tool in regulating juvenile crimes and preventing them from transgressing towards worse offenses.

However, like the idea of parens patriae, the model of juvenile courts was not maintained, as youth again were often institutionally mistreated. It took nearly 70 years for the courts to realize the extent of this maltreatment. Between 1899 and 1966, children incarcerated in an institution were not given safety and security due to lack of state regulation. However, after the case Kent v. US, courts opted to protect youth’s rights while under state guardianship and instill due process for accused minors. Justice Fortas, speaking for the court in Kent, stated:

There is evidence, in fact that there may be grounds for concern that the child [in the institution] receives the worst of both worlds: that he gets neither the protections accorded to adults nor the solicitous care and regenerative treatment postulated for children.

This decision lead to the monumental Charles Gault case, in which the juvenile court system’s nature of a separate, informal, un-legalized way of procedure was completely changed. The noble intentions of the Court gave way to the Supreme Court opinion known as In Re Gault. The opinion was tremendously significant as it created due process protections for juveniles while still maintaining some systems in the loco parentis model. This decision afforded the juvenile with the right to council, the right to confrontation of his accusers and witness confrontation, adequate written notice of charges, and the right to cross examination. The In Re Gault decision completely changed the way society dealt with its troubled youth. Although much of the juvenile court system has changed since its conception, it is apparent that the established laws for such status offenses have continually improved and developed in hopes of protecting the child from further wrong doings.

The culmination of these court decisions understandably led to the McKeiver v. Pennsylvania case. A question concerning the extent of a juvenile’s right to due process arose. Should the juvenile courts institute a jury into their court proceedings in order to establish full due process protections for children? The court held that "the imposition of the jury trial on the juvenile court system would not strengthen greatly, if at all, the fact finding function, and would continually provide an attrition of the juvenile court’s assumed ability to function in a unique manner." Thus, since the juvenile justice system was not supposed to be an adversarial process, the Court felt that jury trials were unnecessary.

Social Science Arguments for the Continuance of Status Offense Laws

The development of the juvenile justice system has continually worked to protect its youth from present and future harm. Although there is sustained argument for greater liberation of child’s rights, and many supporters are missing relevant evidence about adolescent decision making and development. From its conception, the juvenile court system has embodied a large amount of different disciplines (medical, judicial, and psychological) in determining the proper treatment for delinquents and status offenders. That established evidence, arguably, creates a just basis for the juvenile laws.

One behavior charged as a status offense, due in part by faulty decision making, is the act of running away. Currently the law is arranged to protect children. Since 1974 with the passage of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, programs have been established, by the juvenile justice system and child welfare system, to supplement short-term crisis intervention to runaway youth. These programs are there to aid the youth. However, it is the laws that prohibit children from fleeing parental custody in an aim to protect them. Most runaways have suffered similar physical and sexual abuse, parental drug and alcohol abuse, and other violent family settings. Yet, because they do not have the financial resources to live alone, they should not look at running away as a solution. In most cases, these runaways become homeless which becomes an even greater personal and social problem. Runaways, and thus homeless youth, suffer a very high risk for emotional and health problems due to high frequencies of health compromising sexual behavior and drug use. The established laws are in place to remove these runaways from the street, and if necessary, remove them from any other harmful setting (i.e. home). Once again though, the system, using the doctrine of parens patraie, is in place to look after the best interest of the child.

School absenteeism, another statutorily created status offense, is another social issue which juvenile courts try to diminish. The law presently defines truancy as, "any pupil subject to compulsory, full time education or to continuation education who is absent from school without valid excuse for more than three days or tardy in excess of 30 minutes on each of more than three days in one school year." The truancy policy first started in the last half of the 19th century and early 20th century under Compulsory School Attendance Laws. These regulations were established to keep children out of labor markets, to integrate and acculturate children of immigrants, and to afford young people protections from hazards of the street, workplace, and their parents. Schools act in the "formation of an effective delinquency prevention policy." In addition, it allows pupils to further their skills and education, which benefits their society by creating a more intelligent population.

Long-term studies have established a correlation between truancy and delinquency in adolescence and adulthood. There is evidence that truants engage in higher levels of juvenile delinquency and have more convictions as young adults (17-24 years old). They also have lower status jobs, unstable job history, and higher levels of anti-social activities. All of these factors help defend the importance of regular school attendance and the laws that ensure such educational participation.

School is not the only place that youth establish a base of knowledge. As stated before, adolescence is a time of great social development. Teens are continually learning from their environments and life experiences. However, they lack the experience which law officials, social scientists, and most adults possess. Therefore, laws concerning teenage sexual behavior have been established to protect youth from making mistakes that would hamper their future. Today no one under 18 years of age is allowed to consent to or act in sexual intercourse. The established laws protect the child from being violated from child molesters and rapists. Although in many cases there are two consenting adolescent youth, the laws try to guard them from any physical and emotional trauma.

Adolescence is a time of bodily change and growth. It, therefore, becomes a time of emotionally coping with the body. There is a need for the youth to come to terms with the unknown changes that occur. Children physically develop at different times and even medical experts have a hard time of discerning when an adolescent has reached complete development. However, it is widely accepted that 18 years of age is the standard for physical maturity. Although physically the body may be developed earlier than this proscribed age, emotional maturity occurs at much later ages. This emotional instability leads some youth to make irrational decisions concerning sexual behavior. Many are not emotionally ready to comprehend the full consequences that such acts may produce.

Youth generally experience the most rapid and dramatic change in development since infancy. Between the ages of 10 and 17, significant physical, emotional, social, moral, and intellectual changes are experienced and are variable among individuals. Adolescence is a time of great flexibility in response to environment, family, friends, and schools. Pre-adolescence is a period where children are creating an understanding of self in relation to the family and individuality within the family.

Early adolescence is a stage of moral development where the youth is learning the bounds of rules within the family and in other groups. This development is important to maintain and justify the social order. Finally, in late adolescence, youth feel the bonds of society but has also created an individual moral code. These stages of moral development and social knowledge are important for adolescent growth. However, this age is extremely fragile to outside influences. Thus, where parental supervision can no longer hold weight with the child, the status offense take over, prohibiting the child from becoming sexually active at too early an age. Additionally, since this emotional development lasts, for the most part, until the age of 18, the laws logically pertain to those individuals under 18 years of age.

One consequence that early sexual behavior brings is teenage pregnancy. Today one out of every ten teenage girls becomes pregnant. Adolescent youth, because of their under- developed decision making skills, do not have the capability of planning contraception adequately. This leads one to conclude that adolescents still maintain a level of immaturity. There are also high health risks for sexually active and teenage mothers. One risk is that their bodies are not developmentally ready to carry a baby to full term. High suicide rates abound in pregnant adolescents because of their emotional immaturity.

Furthermore, there is not a normal life trajectory for teenage parents. A teenage parent’s dependence on his/her family is prolonged. The energy in developing self-knowledge and psychological independence is diverted to the child. Therefore, interpersonal relationships with both sexes become almost completely lacking. In short, early sexual behavior increases an adolescent’s chances of harmful outcomes such as pregnancy. This outcome, in turn, could create possible health risks, a failure to establish a healthy social life, and economic independence. Therefore, the law that prohibits sexual intercourse to youth under the age of 18 years old is appropriate and should not be eradicated.

One of the major debates of status offenses is over the consumption of alcohol by youth under the age of 21. Currently state laws prohibit anyone under 21 years of age from purchasing or consuming alcoholic beverages. There are many reasons, both health and social, why the established laws should stay intact. One reason is that adolescent decision making skills are not completely developed until around the age of 18 years old. However, some youth do not develop appropriate decision making skills until much later. Therefore, 21 years of age is a reasonable compromise. Additionally, adolescence is a time of great emotional change due to bodily, emotional, and social influences. Through this change, feelings of loneliness and confusion begin to surface. Some adolescents who possess certain amounts of immaturity turn to alcohol to cope with their isolation. This faulty decision to use alcohol becomes a problem and has lead many late adolescents to high incidents of alcoholism.

Adolescence and late childhood is a crucial window for the emergence of several persistent, behavioral problems. Studies show that the earlier a youth starts using alcohol the greater the chance that he/she will become an abuser. Regular substance use is the first step in the escalation toward substance abuse. There is also a correlation between delinquency and persistent alcohol use. The law, therefore, acts as a protector of society and the children within because it serves to prevent future acts of delinquency.


In conclusion, status laws are justified and should not be abolished. From its conception, the juvenile justice system has served to provide for and protect its youth. Status offenses are simply a manifestation of this duty to protect and serve. Although there has been controversy concerning the correct ways that this system should handle status offenders, the laws have been established with the guidance of many different disciplines. These different areas of focus have studied the costs and benefits of such adolescent behaviors (truancy, runaways, alcohol use, and sexual behavior) and have espoused valid reasons for the enactment of status offenses. The aforementioned disciplines have analyzed the negative social, personal, and economic factors that may occur with these behaviors. Therefore, it becomes apparent that status offense laws are well conceived as conscientious of the individual and society, and in existence to protect, serve, and help adolescents. In the words of Justice Fortas "we do hold that [juvenile courts] must measure up to the essentials of due process and fair treatment." And with the established laws and psychologically, empirical evidence, the juvenile justice system has come that much closer to its aim at fairness and protection of children.