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Juvenile Status Offenders - The Breadth Of Proscribed Behaviors

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Early juvenile court codes enacted far more status offenses than those described above. The term "status offense" had not been created. The more contemporary distinction between a status offender and a delinquent had not been drawn. A status offense was a delinquent offense. There was no differentiation or restriction as to what a judge could do with a status offender compared with a delinquent. The judge could send an incorrigible child off to a state institution as readily as a chronic or severe law violator.

Code makers sought to regulate juvenile activities and bolster parental and societal control efforts with a juvenile court. Though the juvenile court was intended as a humane and rehabilitative instrument, its authority and powers were nonetheless awesome. The sweep of these codes was enormously wide.

For example, the South Dakota Juvenile Court Act, current for half a century and finally repealed in 1968, banned such juvenile misbehaviors as incorrigibility or intractability, association with "thieves, vicious, or immoral persons," absence from home, growing up in idleness or crime, repeated truancy, frequenting a house of ill repute, visiting a place where gaming devices are operated, frequenting a saloon, patronizing a billiard room, patronizing a wine-room or dance hall connected with or adjacent to a house of ill-fame or saloon, frequenting with a person of the opposite sex at a place where liquors may be purchased after 9 p.m., going to a secluded place with one of the opposite sex at nighttime, wandering about the streets in the nighttime without being on lawful business, writing or using vile, obscene, vulgar, profane or indecent language, smoking cigarettes or using tobacco in any form, drinking liquors other than at home, and being "guilty of indecent, immoral, or lascivious conduct."

These proscriptions constituted violations of law applicable to children. Juvenile violators of these status offenses were charged, along with juvenile violators of such crimes as burglary and larceny and assault, as juvenile delinquents. The violation of a status offense was perceived as a crime committed by a juvenile.

Other juvenile codes contained many of the banned misbehaviors set forth in the South Dakota code. The court's powers over conduct illegal only for children as well as juvenile law violations was meant to be exercised to provide the care, custody, and discipline nearly equivalent to that which should have been given by the parents. As the 1907 Colorado statute provided, any delinquent child "shall be treated, not as a criminal, but as misdirected and misguided, and needing aid, encouragement, help and assistance."

Juvenile court advocates, past and present, have contended that much good was done for young people and their communities by juvenile court interventions. However, court youths and their families in numerous juvenile courts, along with informed observers, have questioned for at least four decades whether the rhetoric of juvenile court was matched by the reality of implementation. Indeed, many youths were not helped, and some sustained harm from the intervention.

Juvenile courts early adopted informal handling approaches for use both with certain status and law violation offenders. The youths were placed on informal supervision or referred to external agency services in lieu of formal court handling. Status offenders represented a significant part of both informal and formal juvenile court workloads.

Juveniles court practices received little evaluation or critical examination until about 1960. These courts were informal hearing chambers. Lawyers found it difficult to practice in this judge-dominated setting, which was basically bereft of law or procedure. Many judges were not lawyers. Court probation officers held strong powers and were major influences on judicial decision-making. No serious questions were raised as to whether status offense youths should be differentiated from other youths who had violated criminal laws.

Juvenile Status Offenders - Separation Of Noncriminal Conduct From Delinquent Conduct [next] [back] Juvenile Status Offenders - Historical Antecedents

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