Friday, August 31, 2012

Status Offenses

In the age of Facebook, the word “status” has had a remarkable new lease on life. Two millennia removed from its Latin roots, the word pours forth over the Internet, a vessel into which millions pour their expressions of self.

There are, however, other specific uses for the word. In criminal justice vocabulary, “status offense” is a term of art for conduct that, though not criminal, carries consequences because the offender is a juvenile.

Examples of status offenses include:

• Underage drinking

• Skipping school (truancy),

• Running away from home

• Curfew violations

Behaviors such as these can bring juveniles under the supervision of the courts. If the problem is persistent enough, a judge may find that the juvenile is delinquent. This, in turn, can trigger placement in a custodial setting that has most, if not all, of the elements of incarceration.

A glance at the entry for “status crime” in the Fifth Edition of Black’s Law Dictionary (1979) points to a time when open-ended offenses were used against adults as well. A “status crime,” according to this edition of Black’s, is “[a] class of crime which consists not in proscribed action or inaction, but in the accused’s having a certain personal condition or being a person of a specified character.”

The example given in Black’s is vagrancy. I’m reminded also, though, of Otis the Drunk in reruns of the “Andy Griffith Show” that I saw in my youth.

Sheriff Andy Taylor and Deputy Barnie Fife did not have a systemic procedure in place for testing Otis’s blood-alcohol level. But that did not stop them from using their discretion to put him behind bars when they deemed it appropriate.

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