The NCSL Blog


By Anne Teigen

In Principles in Effective Juvenile Justice Policy, a report developed by a bipartisan group of state legislators and published by NCSL last year, one of the key concepts is the importance of serving youth with effective, evidence-based services in their communities in order to promote public safety.

Young woman being arrestedPrinciple No. 7 of the report suggests that states, “strive to keep youth in the community, employ evidence-based methods to promote positive youth development, and build on the strengths of youth and their families,” including adopting “policies that prevent out-of-home placement except for the highest risk and most serious offending youth.”

A new, interactive tool from The Pew Charitable Trusts highlights data from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and sheds new light on who is in juvenile detention and why. 

The most recent data, from 2015, shows that 10,885 of the 48,043 juveniles held in residential facilities across the United States on a single day were confined for non-criminal infractions such as status offenses or probation violations.

A status offense is conduct that would not be a crime if committed by an adult and includes truancy, curfew violations, incorrigibility, running away and underage possession and/or consumption of alcohol or tobacco. Probation violations can vary from skipping a meeting with a probation officer or not attending a required alcohol class.

The tool points out that nearly a quarter of juveniles in custody were held for these minor violations, marking the largest share of youth held for these acts since this data collection began in 1997.

In spite of these high numbers of youth who are detained for minor offenses, a growing body of research indicates that out-of-home placements and detention do not produce better outcomes for many young people.

In some instances, they can be counterproductive to reducing recidivism and even dangerous for youth.

The interactive tool allows users to identify the number, percentage and rate at which youth from an individual state are sent to juvenile facilities, and to compare those with other states’ data.

This information can help lawmakers better understand the nature of delinquency in their jurisdictions and implement policy grounded in those specific circumstances.

Washington passed a measure in 2018 that aims to get more data on how truancy cases are handled in the state. The superintendent of public instruction is required to collect truancy data from the school districts.

The data must include the number of petitions filed by a school district with the juvenile court and whether the petition results in referral to a community truancy board, another intervention, a hearing in juvenile court or any other less restrictive disposition. Also required in the reporting is each instance of a young person detained for failure to comply with a court order, with a statement of the reasons for each instance of detention.

Several states have already adopted innovative policies to divert non-violent youth, including status offenders, from out-of-home placement, which allows costly residential facility space to be reserved for young people who have committed more serious offenses.

  •  Georgia prohibits residential commitment for youth charged with status offenses, and Rhode Island prohibits the detention of juveniles who are in violation of a court order.
  •  Kansas passed legislation in 2016 prohibiting committing a youth on probation to state custody for technical violations and required probation officers to respond to violations with a continuum of community-based graduated sanctions and incentives.
  • Utah’s HB 239, passed in 2017, limited the use of secure confinement for youth facing probation violations. The law also prohibited referrals to law enforcement or juvenile court for status offenses and infractions committed on school grounds, which had the effect of removing truancy from the juvenile court.  

More legislation is expected to be introduced in 2019 related to diverting young people who commit status offenses and probation violations from juvenile detention.

Anne Teigen is the program principal for NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.

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About the NCSL Blog

This blog offers updates on the National Conference of State Legislatures' research and training, the latest on federalism and the state legislative institution, and posts about state legislators and legislative staff. The blog is edited by NCSL staff and written primarily by NCSL's experts on public policy and the state legislative institution.