Status Offenders Detained: By the Numbers

The JJPDA Reauthorization bill that just made it through the Senate Judiciary Committee originally clamped down hard on the use of the valid-court order exception, which allows judges to detain in a secure facility youths who commit a status offense after being ordered not to do so. The bill would limit to seven days detainment under these circumstances, and require a written explanation by the judge on why detention was necessary.

An amendment from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) that was approved gets even tougher: it phases out any use of valid court order exceptions three years after the bill is signed.

The committee debate sparked our interest in exactly how many youth are being detained as status offenders. These are some estimates, drawn from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s 2006 Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement Databook, which is a census of juveniles based on counts for one specific day.

The census day for 2006 was February 22, even though four previous censuses took place in one of the fall months. That could have meant higher-than-usual numbers in the frostier states, where a judge might have erred on the side of caution and committed a runaways or homeless youth brought in on status offense.

“Secure” means different things to different people. Pat Arthur, who specializes in status offender issues for the National Center for Youth Law, says there were 4,717 status offenders in “secure detention” on census day 2006.

That number includes youth who landed in the predictable places: detention centers, ranches, boot camps, and youth prisons. But Arthur also included group homes, shelters and diagnostic centers.

A statistician we talked to finds it misleading to count a chronic runaway sent to a shelter or group home in the same way you would count a youth sent to detention centers or state lock-ups. Arthur didn’t even exclude shelters or group homes without locks, which account for 796 of the youth in her tally.

But Gary Leofanti, CEO of the Youth Network Council, and Vicky Wagner, CEO of the National Network for Youth, agree with Arthur: If the youth lands in a place where leaving that place constitutes another violation of a court order, then that youth is being securely held.

The number of status offenders in detention centers, long-term lockups and boot camp/ranch programs: 1,153.

[Update: A somewhat definitive answer on this subject posted here]

Judges commit more status offenders than they detain. Regardless of facility, judges committed 3,635 status offenders and detained 836; 132 carried a status of “diversion.” The conventional wisdom is that it’s easier to guarantee services to a committed youth. It also guarantees them a criminal record, while detention does not.

Of the status offenders who were committed:

*2,806 went to group homes or shelters

*729 went to detention centers, lockups or boot camp/ranches.

New York leads the league. Using Arthur’s all-inclusive calculation, New York is by far the state that most frequently acts on status offenses. The census shows 729 placed in some facility by a judge on 2006’s census day. Next highest is Pennsylvania at 351.

Fifteen and sixteen. Youths who are either 15 or 16 made up almost 2,500 of the 4,717 status offenders ordered into facilities by judges. That’s more than 13-, 14- and 17-year olds combined (about 1,900).

More males than females. 2,760 males were detained, committed or diverted by judges in status offense cases, compared to 1,951 females. But there’s something much more interesting about the female population.

The 1,951 females represents 14 percent of ALL females 20 and under who were detained, committed or diverted to a juvenile residential facility on census day 2006. The 2,760 males made up less than 4 percent of the 78,839 male who were in a juvenile facility on census day under court order.

It’s interesting that so many residential beds are taken up by female status offenders when you consider how many states struggle to find spaces for girls. There may be more space for juvenile females in secure facilities if judges are forced to look elsewhere with status offenders.

Are these counts really correct? The way the calculations were set up by OJJDP, violators of valid court orders were supposed to be counted under “technical violations” – a category that also includes probation violations – and not “status offenses.” But when you search technical violations for those entered as a result of status offenses (which should give you numbers just for valid court order violators), you get no information.

That could means that no officials bothered to specify technical violations they entered, meaning there is no way to tell how many technical violations occurred because of status offenses; or they ignored the instruction to count valid court order violations as “technical violations” and just stuck them under “status offense.” Confused yet?

Either way, it’s impossible to know how many youth in the technical violations category are status offenders. So this data is the best available to juvenile justice advocates.

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