The Criminalization of Youth (and Other Statuses)
Many if not most of my clients are criminalized for reasons directly related to their age, disability, nationality, race, sexuality, or gender identity. This kind “crime” is called a “status offense” because the alleged crime or infraction is directly related to a person’s status or identity.
For example, I have several clients who have mental health disabilities that compound the impulsivity accompanying the incomplete brain development of adolescence and result in “acting out” or “disruptive behavior.” Some of these clients’ first interactions with the justice system have happened because their schools called police or school resource officers (school-based police) to write tickets or detain students for misconduct or infractions stemming from or directly related to depression, anxiety, trauma, or similar emotional disabilities.
Not only does this issue fuel the bulk of my work, but the criminalization of status offenses amongst juveniles is a national problem.1
“Nearly a quarter of the 48,043 juveniles held in residential facilities across the U.S. on a single day in 2015 were confined for status offenses or technical violations of supervision, according to the Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.”2
A “technical violation” happens when a person does not adhere to all the requirements of probation or parole. For young people, this can include violating dress codes (i.e. violating school code), failing to maintain 100% attendance, or any slew of other minor school-based infractions that have no implication about a person’s ability to be a law-abiding citizen and potential to be a contributing member of the community. A technical violation can also involve missing curfew by 1 second. Of course, being late for curfew is typical of adolescent behavior and does not imply being a “flight risk”—i.e. a risk of running away from law enforcement.
Colorado outperforms most states in avoiding the incarceration of young people for status offenses or technical violations. However, Colorado still has a problem that tracks with the nationwide trends. 2% of Colorado’s incarcerated young people are incarcerated for status offenses, and 4% of Colorado’s incarcerated young people are incarcerated for technical violations.3 Colorado is 36th amongst states in the number of young people incarcerated who are incarcerated for status offenses (21 people) and technical violations (39 people).4 In other words, there are 60 people under the age of 18 who are currently incarcerated in Colorado for reasons beyond their control or for remarkably minor reasons that do not imply anything about the person’s risk to self or community.
Each of these numbers should be 0.
The fallout of this nationwide trend is immense.
Consider the impact of incarceration on a young, developing mind. Amplify that impact when a young person must reconcile the fact that they are supposed to trust, obey, and support a society whose justice system has criminalized them simply for being young or having a disability.
Consider how a young person incarcerated for a status offense or a technical violation can reconcile that in light of the obstacles and conditions inherent to juvenile facilities.5 Amplify those obstacles and conditions because of how those young people are removed from their educational environments that could otherwise contribute to growth and community and placed in juvenile facilities—wherein there is a distinct lack of educational opportunity.6
Finally, consider how incarcerating young people without a full education creates a trap of long-term disenfranchisement and criminalization.7 Amplify the impact of this marginalization as these forces disproportionately affect students of color, students with disabilities, LGBTQ students, and students coming from backgrounds of poverty—the demographics most disproportionately involved in arrests.
While Colorado outperforms national averages in criminalizing young people for status offenses or technical violations, we are currently incarcerating 60 young people for no other reason than they are young, they have a disability, or they come from a targeted demographic. Are you okay with a “justice” system that perpetuates this profound injustice?
1. The PEW Charitable Trusts, “Juvenile Confinement Across the Nation” (Oct. 15, 2018) (available at https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/data-visualizations/2018/juveniles-in-custody-for-noncriminal-acts).
5. Serial, “A Madman’s Vacation,” Season 3 Episode 8 (available at https://serialpodcast.org/season-three/8/a-madmans-vacation).
6. Hailly T. N. Korman & Lisa Pilnik, “How Does Education in the Juvenile Justice Measure Up? It Doesn’t.” Ed. Week (Oct. 25, 2018) (available at https://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2018/10/26/how-does-education-in-the-juvenile-justice-system.html). Note that students in juvenile facilities have a pass rate in algebra of 61%. Only 43% of students in juvenile facilities have access to credit recovery programs—much needed programs in light of how much time these students will spend away from their educations as a result of being involved in the justice system. It should also be noted that students in juvenile facilities are infinitely better off than students in adult facilities, where there is either limited or no access to high school diploma or GED programs. Finally, it should be noted that this data is incomplete as “only 18 states provided credible data about enrollment and achievement” See Bellweather Education Partners, “Measuring Educational Opportunity in Juvenile Justice Schools” (May 15, 2018) (available at https://bellwethereducation.org/publication/measuring-educational-opportunity-juvenile-justice-schools).
7. Serial, “Some Time When Everything Has Changed,” Season 3 Episode 9 (available at https://serialpodcast.org/season-three/9/some-time-when-everything-has-changed).