Reforms Mean Reducing Juvenile Court Jurisdiction for Low-level Offenses

Posted by Darlene Conroy
September 20, 2017

Several states that have reformed their juvenile justice systems in the past few years have, as part of their reform packages, eliminated or limited juvenile court jurisdiction over

truancy offenses.  Instead of justice system involvement, they have chosen to send youth to community-based interventions without involving the courts.  Truancy – missing school without a good reason for doing so – is one of several status offenses that states are tackling in a new way, relying less on resource-intensive court involvement and more on access to social services.  In turn, states can focus their justice system resources on youth who pose greater risk to public safety.
Utah, which enacted comprehensive reforms in 2017, charted a strong course by eliminating truancy from juvenile court jurisdiction and expanding pre-court interventions shown to be effective in working with families, schools, and communities.  Five other states – Kansas in 2016, South Dakota and West Virginia in 2015, and Hawaii and Kentucky in 2014 – have limited juvenile court jurisdiction over truancy in favor of expanding alternatives. 
These six states recognized that the change would create better outcomes for young people and for the states as a whole.  Research shows that most youth are not on a path to future adult crime.  Over-involvement with the juvenile justice system, though, can increase the likelihood of reoffending. Focusing punishment (and resources) on youth who are truant may actually hamper their chances of growing into successful adults.  Through a comprehensive working group process, the states engaged with this research, analyzed how it was borne out in their own data, and developed recommendations for reform.  These recommendations became legislative packages, which passed with broad, bipartisan support.

In Utah, before House Bill 239 (2017), truancy was one of the top five most common offenses for youth sent to detention facilities the first time they entered the juvenile justice system.  Those youth were detained alongside youth charged with serious, violent offenses.  The working group found that adjudicated youth who were ordered to secure detention were reoffending at higher rates than those who were not, even among youth assessed as low-risk.  In light of this information, the H.B. 239 reforms eliminated truancy from juvenile court jurisdiction.  This change will prevent unnecessary and costly deep-end system involvement for youth charged with these low-level offenses.  Instead, Utah is investing in the statewide expansion of Mobile Crisis Outreach Teams, Receiving Centers (non-detention settings where youth can receive services) that increase options for law enforcement, and youth courts, as well as allocations for family-strengthening programs and other research-backed, community-based truancy interventions.

The other five states undertook similar reforms to address how status offenses like truancy are handled.  Kansas’s reform package, Senate Bill 367 (2016), required that youth charged with status offenses and other children in need of care may not be securely detained under any circumstances, and may only be temporarily lodged in a less restrictive setting like shelter care under certain circumstances.  This reform is projected to help curtail the number of intakes resulting in pre-adjudication detention in Kansas, which was almost 50 percent higher than the national average in 2014.  South Dakota made diversion from formal court processing the presumptive sanction for low-level offenses including truancy and created a citation process for such offenses as part of Senate Bill 73 (2015).  In fiscal year 2016, youth completed 310 of 374 diversions for truancy successfully. 

Along the same lines, West Virginia’s Senate Bill 393 (2015) created a two-step, pre-court diversion process for status offenders that includes referral by a caseworker to community services.  Hawaii’s reform package, House Bill 2490 (2014), expanded the use of informal adjustment by requiring its use for status offenders, affording those youth the opportunity to avoid court involvement.  Kentucky likewise created an enhanced pre-court diversion process for status offenders when it passed Senate Bill 200 (2014), allowing youth to be referred to appropriate services and case management.
The move away from juvenile courts adjudicating truancy in these six states was based on vigorous analyses of each state’s system alongside research into the outcomes, efficacy, and return on investment of various interventions.  Keeping young people in their homes and increasing their access to social services is a better way to tackle a problem like truancy for important reasons: It offers a more cost-effective means of identifying underlying problems that may be contributing to behavior like truancy, and provides a more direct means of addressing those problems.  It also helps protect youth against deep-end system involvement that may actually increase their future risk of recidivism. 

Reforms that offer better outcomes for youth while prioritizing public safety and a better return on investment are a move in the right direction.  States that are looking at reforming their juvenile justice systems should follow this path, too.