In the U.S., youth are routinely sent to detention centers and then incarcerated because they’ve been picked up for status offenses such as truancy or running away from home—and a large number of those affected are young girls. Two researchers say there are safer and more effective ways to help them.
Earlier this month, a young female was arrested and ushered into our criminal justice system. The cause? According to local reporting, she was charged with being “[b]eyond [p]arental [c]ontrol.”
The young girl had run away from home the previous day and, rather than escorting her home, law enforcement arrested her and took her to Idaho’s Kootenai County Juvenile Detention Center.
Sadly, this is not an isolated incident. In the United States, youth are routinely sent to detention centers and then incarcerated due to status offenses such as truancy, running away or “being beyond parental control.” While most of the incarcerated youth spend time behind bars because of the harm they caused to person or property, status offenders are only penalized because of the age at which they commit these otherwise mundane “offenses.”
In fact, if they were just a few years older, there would be no legal consequences at all.
While the circumstances or final consequences of this particular girl’s decision to run away are unknown, if her case resembles that of the median youth held for a status offense, she will be detained for 21 days. And if she is adjudicated and committed, she will be incarcerated for an additional 63 to 106 days.
The decision to incarcerate youth who commit status offenses has contributed to a significant proportion of the youth population behind state bars today. According to data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), in 2015, approximately one in five youth detained in Nebraska were incarcerated due to a status offense.
According to the same data, a staggering 45 percent of youth detained in West Virginia were held for status offenses—less than 26 percent of that total were incarcerated for actually harming anyone. Even in New York, a state known for its liberal leadership, 17 percent of detained youth were held for status offenses that same year.
What’s worse, girls are disproportionately harmed by the policy. In 2015, one in four female youth held in private facilities were incarcerated for such offenses and approximately one in nine female youth were mandated residential placement for the same cause. Comparatively, only one in twenty-five boys were held.
Empirical evidence suggests runaway youth are an especially troubled group who need our compassion and help, rather than to be confined to the walls of a jail cell. Research using national survey data provides evidence that females, youth of lower socioeconomic status and young adolescents who have experienced neighborhood victimization (such as witnessing someone being shot or having their house broken into) or personal victimization are more likely to run away.
While arresting these children is not the answer, leaving youth on the streets is also not ideal. A 2017 review of the current research summarized that runaway youth are at an increased risk of sexual victimization, substance abuse, mental health issues and physical abuse: “[t]hese youths often flee their homes to escape abuse in their home environment, only to emerge on the streets, and be exposed to consistently high levels of sexual and physical victimization, in addition to constant exposure to violence.”
Indeed, a 2012 study including 350 runaway youth found that 39 percent reported experiencing physical abuse, 14 percent reported sexual abuse and over a third reported neglect. Poor family communication and worries about family relationships had the largest reported impact on runaway youth depression, anxiety and disassociation.
The good news, however, is that states have options besides incarceration or leaving at-risk young people on the street and instead can choose more compassionate and effective alternatives when young people run away from home.
Community-based diversion and prevention programs present a safer, more effective way to get to the heart of family problems, trauma or simply a poorly thought-out decision. Rather than compounding underlying issues, research shows that these intervention and diversion programs are far better at preventing future delinquent behavior.
Moreover, these programs provide more flexibility than detention and correctional centers and can engage entire families in the growth process at an appropriate level for the individual’s risk.
Most importantly, they rebuild the systems that support youth rather than isolating them from the very people and institutions that know them best.
And that’s an alternative that is cheaper and better for us all.
Emily Mooney is a criminal justice research associate with R Street Institute. Nila Bala is the associate director of criminal justice policy for R Street and a former Baltimore, Maryland public defender. They welcome comments from readers.