Key findings

  • Thousands of minors go to juvenile courts annually for so-called status offenses only the underage can commit — infractions such as truancy, running away, curfew violations and tobacco possession.
  • But since these are technically not crimes, even indigent youth have no constitutional right to the appointment of defense counsel before pleading guilty.
  • For states to get federal delinquency-prevention grants, courts must abide by federal law prohibiting the jailing of status offenders as immediate post-trial punishment. But it’s not clear these rules are respected.
  • A post-trial federal exception allows jailing of status offenders if they have been issued “valid court orders” setting conditions for their behavior and have failed to comply. However, minors must be afforded appointment of a defense attorney before they reach the point of being jailed.
  • Despite the federal guidelines, there is little uniformity in state procedures regarding status offenders and their rights, and confusion over interpretation of those procedures.