We all got in a little trouble at school. We skipped class, we mouthed off to the teacher, we lost track of time and get to school late. For most kids, little malfeasances can be an accident, a bit of acting out or, for those who grew up in poverty or precarity, something beyond their control.
And for some kids, it’s a jail sentence.
Across the country, thousands of kids are still thrown in juvenile detention for violations known as “status offenses” — offenses that wouldn’t be considered crimes if not for the age of the offender. A new report by the Vera Institute of Justice shows that 100,100 kids were locked up this way in 2014 alone, the most recent year the data is available. They’re the kind of offenses that child psychologists will say are a natural part of growing up. But if you’re black, poor, LGBTQ or female, you often don’t get the benefit of the doubt: You get jail.
Some status offenses, like underage drinking, are crimes. But in some states, talking back to your teacher, disrupting the class or skipping school can be referred to courts for disciplinary action. In Wisconsin, a child can be referred to the court for being late to class five times.
Some status offenses have nothing to do with delinquency at all. According to the report, kids can be arrested for running away from home even if they were thrown out by their parents. The burden of youth homelessness falls especially hard on LGBTQ kids — who account for as much as 40% of homeless youth — when they’re kicked out of their homes by parents unwilling to accept their orientation.
And while the courts tend to give boys the benefit of the doubt, girls get an additional crackdown when it comes to status offenses. A 2010 census found that girls accounted for 16% of all detained youth nationwide, but 40% of detentions for status offenses, a trend dating back to the 1800’s when detaining young girls kept allegedly “immoral” women out of pool halls and saloons.
“A girl can fight with her mom, and if a cop is called into that home, it can immediately raise the threat of a girl who’s gone out of control,” Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, one of the authors of the Vera Institute report, said in a phone interview. “Which is particularly true for girls of color, when they’re viewed as more adult.”
Instead of seeing law enforcement as a shortcut for dealing with unruly kids, the authors recommend a combination of family services like weekly mentoring programs and in-home therapy — programs that could potentially be more cost-effective than spending the $149,000 a year to put that kid behind bars.
But in many cases, Ananthakrishnan said, the solution could be nothing at all. She instead points to basic cognitive development research that shows that a lot of the acting out that’s been criminalized — skipping school, acting out in class, running away from home — is often a normal part of childhood development.
“Kids need to be treated like kids,” Ananthakrishnan said.