A number of activities are deemed offenses when committed by juveniles, because of the their age at the time of the activity. These are called "status" offenses. Examples of status offenses include:
The basis for status offenses stems from the legal theory of parens patriae, in that status offenses are harmful to minors, and the courts need to protect minors from such activities.
"Deinstitutionalization" of Status Offenses
During the late 1960s and 1970s, there was a move toward deinstitutionalizing status offenses. The movement was formalized by the 1974 Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act. Deinstitutionalization meant that juveniles who committed status offenses were diverted from the juvenile justice system to agencies outside the juvenile court's jurisdiction. The county or district attorney was given the authority to divert an offender, and this decision was made before a petition was filed.
Diversion was implemented because many legislators felt that status offenses were minor in terms of criminal nature, and juveniles were better off having their families or some other agency deal with the matter than being formally processed by the justice system. Formal processing of status offenses was thought to lead to labeling and further delinquent acts, thus negating the whole purpose of rehabilitation.
After diversion, juveniles who were adjudicated for status offenses were often classified as children in need of supervision (CHINS), persons in need of supervision (PINS), and minors in need of supervision (MINS). Today, status offenses still exist in all states, and many juveniles are still confined for such offenses. The Department of Justice estimated that in 1996, juvenile courts around the United States formally disposed of some 162,000 status offenses, 44,800 of which were liquor law violations (OJJDP, 2000).
Example of Age "Status" Offense: Curfew
Many cities, such as New Orleans, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., require individuals under the age of 17 to be off the streets by 11 p.m. Teenagers found violating this curfew are held at a police-designated truancy center until a parent or guardian claims them. Parents who are found to be aiding and abetting curfew violators are subject to fines and community service.
In several cases, curfew laws have been challenged on the grounds that they violate the First Amendment by prohibiting a juvenile's right to free association. In Qutb v. Strauss (1993), the U.S. Court of Appeals held that curfew laws were constitutional because they are designed to protect the community.
Example of Age "Status" Offense: Truancy
Most local laws prohibit school-age children from taking unexcused school absences. If caught being truant, juveniles may be processed in juvenile court or processed informally. In some states, such as Virginia and Arizona, parents can also be held accountable for their children's truancy and may be fined or jailed.
Get Legal Help Understanding Juvenile Offenses
Many crimes that used to be afforded juvenile protection are now charged as adult crimes with adult penalties. Understanding the ramifications of juvenile petitions and convictions can be the key to your decision of whether to fight your charges or accept a plea deal. If you or a loved one has been charged with a juvenile offense, it's best to talk to an experienced criminal defense attorney who can help you sort through the laws and give you personalized legal advice.