“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”
— Nelson Mandela
“A person is a person, no matter how small.”
— Dr. Seuss
On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week, I found myself sitting on the bench in my courtroom co-presenting via Zoom to attendees from Hawaii to Alaska, and from the U.S. Virgin Islands to Guam. I was joining Caren Harp, administrator of the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention at the annual conference of state juvenile justice specialists, to talk about changes to the Juvenile Justice Reform Act. Yesterday, again via video, I delivered a 90-minute presentation to the Idaho Juvenile Justice Association. Each of these sessions had a topic in common: How juvenile courts treats their youngest and most tangential participants — status offenders.
Juveniles find themselves in court in a variety of circumstances. Many are before the court because they have committed an act that would be a criminal offense if they were an adult. These juveniles are referred to as being “delinquent” and can be confined in a detention facility or in the state’s juvenile prison system as administered by the Ohio Department of Youth Services.
Other juveniles have traffic citations. Though the penalties are slightly different from those that adults would face, their situation is not altogether anomalous to that of an adult traffic offender. Juvenile traffic offenders are more likely to have to appear personally in court and are more likely to have their licenses suspended than adults who commit similar offenses. In many cases, their license suspension is mandated by state law. Still, other juveniles have been neglected or abused or otherwise find themselves in need of services or placement in foster care.
Many juveniles, however, find themselves before the court in situations that are applicable only because they are juveniles. These offenses include violations of local curfews, failing to the follow the rules of their parents and teachers, or using tobacco products. Many of these cases full under the umbrella title of being “unruly,” and all of them are referred to as being “status offenders” since they are offenders only because of their status as juveniles.
Federal law, and the laws of most states, provide stringent limitations on how juvenile courts can deal with status offenders, and for good reason. First, these youth have not committed any act that would be criminal if they were an adult. They may be disobedient, or running away from home, but more often than not are engaging in behaviors that pose harm to themselves rather than to others. Second, decades of research has consistently shown that treating these youth as if they were criminals makes it far more likely that they will commit criminal behavior in the future. Thus, the arc of juvenile justice has consistently pushed the needle away from formal court involvement and criminal penalties for status offenders since the 1950s.
Here in Delaware, multiple programs are in place to attempt to identify, assess, and intervene early with these youth. Our assessment center is available to intervene even before law enforcement becomes involved (or upon referral from law enforcement) and to try to get services in place to address unruly behaviors. Our respite program is available to provide temporary housing when necessary. Our Family Advocate Program (and its companion, the Family Support Services Program) can provide in-home interventions for parents. The Parent Project helps parents to change kids’ destructive behavior.
Many of these projects are funded by federal, state or foundation awarded grants, but even those that are funded directly by the county pay huge dividends in the long run. Even as the county has grown, our delinquency filings have dropped steadily in the last decade. We’ve shaved hundreds of thousands of dollars off of our detention center budget. And while the county population has boomed, we’ve largely been able to maintain consistent staffing levels. None of that gets at the very real, but non-financial, benefits that come from happier, healthier kids in happier, healthier family structures.
Yesterday’s talk in Idaho and one I gave in April to the juvenile judges of Virginia were centered around ways to effectively intervene in status offense cases. In 2020, we look back at juvenile justice in 1920 and marvel how backwards it seems. No doubt, juvenile judges in 2120 will look back at our writing of today with the benefit of a century of additional knowledge. But life is a process of perpetual learning, perpetual adapting, and constantly striving to make a small change for the better in the lives of one individual at a time.
David Hejmanowski is judge of the Probate/Juvenile Division of the Delaware County Court of Common Pleas, where he has served as magistrate, court administrator, and now judge, since 2003. He has written a weekly column on law and history for The Gazette since 2005.