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Status offenders are young people charged with offenses that would not be crimes if committed by an adult. Legally, people who break laws that are prohibited only to certain groups are said to have status offenses. Examples of these offenses — misbehaviors that are illegal for youth but not for adults — include breaking tobacco or alcohol consumption laws, not attending school, breaking curfew laws, running away from home, or being beyond the control of parents. Research studies on causes of status offenses have identified personal, family, and school problems as contributing factors. Noncriminal violations of the law by adults such as speeding or illegal parking are also sometimes called status or regulatory offenses.
Juvenile court systems handle status offenses, which are treated differently than criminal offenses. In 1961, the California legislature was the first to remove noncriminal conduct of youth from its delinquency definition. A new act that served as a model for subsequent state legislation, Section 601 of its Welfare and Institutions Code, was written to define and clarify status offenses of minors.
Under most state codes, juvenile status offenders break laws that cover how children or adolescents should behave. Status offense legislation does not cover those who commit criminal offenses such as theft or robbery. Gun possession by a minor is considered a status offense. The use of a gun in a crime, however, becomes a criminal offense.
Because so many youth offenses lacked criminal behavior, the United States federal government mandated in the 1970s that behaviors such as violating curfews, using alcohol or tobacco products, being truant, or running away from home be decriminalized. Those convicted as status offenders are usually not incarcerated in a juvenile justice facility. If court orders are repeatedly violated, however, young offenders can be found delinquent.
Each state has different penalties for status offenders. Some communities and states impose fines or suspend young drivers' licenses. Others require parents to seek counseling or attend parenting classes. The belief is that a more stable home environment will help reduce misbehavior by children or adolescents.
Numerous causes have been found for status offenses. These include family problems such as domestic violence or abuse, school problems including academic failure and non-attendance, and personal problems including drug use or chronic health problems. Many states have incorporated intervention programs to help youth experiencing these problems. Research has been conducted on whether status offenders escalate into more serious violence or criminal behaviors. Though many do not escalate their behavior, a 20-year longitudinal study found that adolescents with habitual truancies were eight times more likely to become juvenile delinquents than non-truant youth.
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