Imagine a juvenile courtroom. The goal is rehabilitation, the mission of the parties and judge to guard the best interests of the juvenile and ensure that he is set on a path to success in life. Now imagine that youth walking into the courtroom toward you. He is wearing a standard issue yellow cotton jumpsuit, and escorted by a deputy sheriff. His hands are cuffed together, chained to a belt, and his feet shuffle with the chain between his ankles. To be garbed and handled as a criminal in this rehabilitative setting, it would be fair to assume that this young man must have committed a serious offense, perhaps a violent crime.
Odds are, you’re wrong.
When most people hear the terms “juvenile justice” or “juvenile court”, the sister phrase “juvenile delinquent” likely springs to mind. We envision a stereotypical teenage deadbeat, dropout or worse, the violent “superpredator” criminologists threatened in the mid-1990s (a myth which has since been fully debunked). But in fact, our Kids Count in Nebraska data shows that the children who are getting arrested, confined, and placed on probation in the juvenile courts are far more likely to have committed non-violent and misdemeanor offenses, or no crime whatsoever. In 2013, only 2% of all youth arrests were for violent crimes, whereas 11% were taken into custody on so-called “status” offenses: charges like truancy, habitual disobedience, or use of alcohol, that would not be criminal if an adult committed them. Similarly, status offenders — also called 3(b) cases, for the portion of Nebraska law granting court jurisdiction over them, Neb. Rev. Stat. 43-247(3)(b) — made up nearly a third of the children placed on probation in 2013 by Nebraska juvenile courts.
Data from the Nebraska Court Administration JUSTICE Case System
Moreover, recent data from the Douglas County Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (highlighted at our Race Matters conference and available online here) shows that the vast majority of children being sent to secure detention are for technical violations rather than violent behavior. Of the average daily population at the Douglas County Youth Center for the 3rd quarter of 2014, 57% were for either a warrant (the child had missed court or left their court ordered placement) or a violation of probation. Only 7% were for a felony crime against a person, and only 3% for a weapons charge.
This trend is not unique to Nebraska. Last week, NPR’s Morning Edition noted that national juvenile incarceration is falling disproportionately; more young women and minorities are facing harsher penalties before the juvenile courts, and just like in Nebraska, many of these children are being confined for minor offenses, technical violations, or non-criminal behavior.
The young man shuffling into the courtroom toward you is five times more likely incarcerated because he missed a court date than because he committed any act of violence. Moreover, though non-criminal status offenders may no longer be confined at secure juvenile detention facilities, in both Douglas and Lancaster County, these children can be housed in so-called “staff secure” wings of those facilities, where many of the same policies still apply. As a result, though they have committed no crime, they are still brought to court in chains.
Voices for Children is currently in the process of compiling a data snapshot on status offenders in Nebraska, highlighting who they are and the outcomes they are experiencing in our courts, and making recommendations for policy changes moving forward. The falling rates of juvenile incarceration across the country and in our own state are a hopeful sign, but we have much more work to do to ensure that we hold youth accountable in age-appropriate ways, to reduce recidivism, and keep our children and communities safe.