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What is a status offense, and what does it mean for a teen?

Posted on May 18, 2021

If your teen engages in what the law considers a “harmful activity” for his or her development, he or she may face status offense charges. A status offense is an activity that is not illegal in its own right but rather, becomes illegal when the person who engages in it is not of legal age.

Lawmakers developed the idea of status offenses based on the legal theory of parens patriae. Per this theory, the law considers it its job to protect minors from activities that could cause either physical harm or damage to their future well-being. FindLaw gives a few examples of status offenses as well as explains the deinstitutionalization of them.

Examples of status offenses

Status offenses are offenses that cause most people to say, “Kids will be kids.” In other words, they are activities that many teens engage in but that often have an adverse impact on a teen’s future. Though every state has its own list of status offenses, the most common examples are as follows:

  • Curfew violations
  • Truancy
  • Possession and/or consumption of alcohol
  • Purchase of cigarettes

Prior to the 1960s, many of these offenses were jailable offenses. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the law made a move to deinstitutionalize these offenses, a move that was finalized via the 1974 Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act.

The deinstitutionalization of status offenses

With the passage of the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act, the juvenile justice system could no longer automatically claim jurisdiction over status offenses. Rather, the district or county attorney could petition to divert the offender to an agency outside of the juvenile court system. Diversion became a popular method for dealing with juvenile offenders because many legislators felt that juveniles had better outcomes when a third-party agency or their families dealt with the matter instead of the courts. In fact, studies showed that juveniles who did undergo formal processing were more likely to commit delinquent acts, become subjects of negative labels or both.

If a teen does commit a status offense today and the courts decide to divert the offender, the teen will likely receive one of three labels. Those include children in need of supervision (CHINS), minors in need of supervision (MINS) or persons in need of supervision (PINS).