Status Offense: Definition & Law

Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

Juvenile courts have been developed in every state in order to address the needs of youth. Juvenile offenders are charged with a law offense or status offense. This lesson defines status offenses and discusses the law governing these uniquely juvenile offenses.

What Is a Status Offense?

From a young age, children are taught the difference between right and wrong. They learn that it is wrong to steal, to hurt someone and to be somewhere you are not supposed to be. Theft, assault and trespass are all law offenses because they go against a statute or ordinance that forbids that conduct. Juveniles who commit a law offense are considered delinquents.

What about a minor skipping school, or a minor in possession of alcohol or tobacco? Adults cannot be charged with those offenses, so why can kids be charged? A status offense is an action that is allowable for adults, but is a violation when committed by a minor. Examples of status offenses include truancy, minor in possession of alcohol or tobacco, curfew violations and running away.

Children charged with status offenses are referred to by several names including status offenders, Child in Need of Supervision, Child in Need of Services or Family in Need of Services. Most states consider 'children' to be people under age 18; however, some states have different age requirements (for example, the age of majority in Nebraska is 19).

Possession of tobacco by a minor is considered a status offense because it is only prohibited for minors.
Children smoking.

Status offense law

Lawmakers passed the Federal Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) in 1974 which created the distinction between status offenses and law offenses. The JJDPA created four core requirements that each state must meet in order to receive federal funding for juvenile delinquency/status offender programs. The most relevant requirement is the deinstitutionalization of status offenders (DSO).

DSO is the main focus of status offense cases. As a result of this law, diversion programs were implemented in many jurisdictions to keep the more minor offenses out of the court system. Diversion programs offer rehabilitative services to the juvenile outside of the court system. For a status offender charged with minor in possession of alcohol, this service may include drug and alcohol counseling.

The JJDPA also states that because status offenses are relatively minor offenses, that detaining those youth actually creates more harm than good. While some states allow for brief terms of detention for status offenders, the purpose of the DSO provision is based on research that indicates community-based services are the more effective way to address those behaviors. Community-based services allow for status offenders to remain in the parental home while participating in therapeutic services, such as drug treatment and mental health services.

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