Bright Idea: Limiting Court Involvement Among Runaway Youth

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Photograph of a young man standing behind a chain-link fence.

Forty years after the Runway and Homeless Youth Act was authorized to provide shelter and services for youth who might otherwise have gone to jail, young people are still being locked up for running away.

In 2009, there were more than 90,000 arrests of young people for running away, says Lisa Pilnik, deputy executive director of the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, which recently released a set of national standards for the care of young people charged with "status offenses" (PDF, 1.4MB). She says between 1995 and 2010, runaway cases were more likely to lead to detention than other status offenses—things that are against the law based on a person’s age, like truancy, curfew violations and underage drinking.

If you work with runaway and homeless youth, you know the devastating effect being saddled with a status offense can have.

“Research has shown that if [status offenders] are locked up with youth who have committed violent or other serious offenses, they may be more likely to develop anti-social attitudes and behaviors,” Pilnik says.

Here are some of the ways Pilnik believes runaway and homeless youth programs can help reduce the number of youth who are arrested for status offenses:

1. Prevention and parent education.
Ideally, Pilnik says, families should be able to get help, like counseling and other interventions, before youth run away. Establishing relationships with youth-servng programs early on can also help families feel more comfortable should a young person decide to stay at a shelter during a time of crisis.

You can also educate parents on how status offenses can hurt youth and help them understand the resources available to them. “Many times, parents might call law enforcement because they’re in crisis and don’t know what else to do,” Pilnik says.

2. Training for staff.
Help your staff understand your state’s laws and local trends. For example, are boys or girls more likely to be brought to court in your area? You might want to create a program that addresses that disparity.   

3. Community collaboration.
Reach out to local courts and legislatures, and tell them about your services. Detention can be expensive, so judges might be very willing to save public funds.

If you're looking to launch a community-wide initiative, Pilnik says you may find it helpful to contact local judges first because they often have strong relationships that make them powerful conveners.

“If you can get a judge on board, he or she can be the one to get everyone at the table,” she says.

Read "National Standards on the Care of Youth Charged with Status Offenses" (PDF,1.4 KB) on the Coalition for Juvenile Justice website.

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