America needs to move the handling of juvenile truants and runaways from the courts to community-based organizations, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Vera Institute of Justice reports.
“Despite the noncriminal nature of these behaviors, youth in approximately 10,400 cases spent time in detention,” the institute’s December 2013 report said.
“A new paradigm has emerged: Connect families with social services in their communities, instead of turning to the courts,” the report noted. This saves millions of dollars, Vera said.
This status offense response is needed when a juvenile runs away from home or routinely skips school, possibly engaging in bad behavior because of his or her age. A study showed around 137,000 status offense cases were reported in 2010.Nearly 50,000, or 36 percent, were going to court for allegations of truancy, said Vera.
In one case, Teresa, a 14-year-old Florida girl, lost her mother and was overwhelmed with the loss, her father grieving in his own way. She began sneaking out at night to be with her 20-year-old boyfriend. When the father found out, he disciplined her harshly, which made matters worse, and one day she went to school and did not come back home, the report said.
Her father called the police. When the police found her, they took her to the respite shelter to be safe. In a very short time, a crisis counselor started working with her and she was back with her father in three days.
“Despite the noncriminal nature of
these behaviors, youth in approximately
10,400 cases spent time in detention”
If she had been in a state without status offense response, the father might have had to file a status offense complaint, as his daughter had run away. She might have gone to court and then to a corrections facility for juveniles, said the institute.
The change is cost-effective and helps children morally and ethically to be at home rather than in juvenile detention, which could make the problem worse, Vera concluded.
Most courts are not suited for status offense cases, as such juvenile cases are called, the report said. Most courts are overloaded, which causes slow response time. Even a few days can be a crisis and put the youths at risk and make it harder for them to come back to their parents, Vera said.
“Families require a faster response and a different kind of response than courts and the juvenile justice system as a whole can offer,” the report said.
The Multi-Agency Resource Center (MARC) in Calcasieu Parish, La., has a centralized point for intake for families. Since this agency started, the number of status offense cases petitioned in court has decreased to only 1 percent of all referrals. “The delay between seeking help and receiving help has dropped dramatically, from 50 days or more to roughly two hours,” said the institute.
Does the community-based programming work? Yes, says the Vera Institute. The state of Florida has a network of nonprofit organizations that run 24 hours a day and seven days a week to assist families in crisis. A 2011 cost-benefit study estimated the state saved more than $160 million in juvenile justice out-of-home placement costs.