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Opinion Editorial
Editorial

Do away with doing time for 'minor' crimes

Congress recognized 40 years ago that it was counterproductive and just plain wrong to incarcerate juveniles for trivial misbehavior such as truancy, breaking curfew, smoking or drinking. These acts, known as status offenses, are illegal only because the person committing them is a minor. Federal law passed at that time prohibited states from locking away most status offenders, but in 1980 the law was amended to allow incarceration when a court order had been violated.

In other words, if a truant teenager was ordered by a court to attend school, and then cut class, incarceration was allowed.

But why? It is unjust to lock up minors for offenses that wouldn't be offenses at all if the "perpetrators" were only a few years older. The practice is costly, and ineffective as well. Substantial research has shown that incarcerating teenagers for these non-criminal actions doesn't deter them from committing the same offenses again once they're released; quite the opposite. After being housed with true juvenile criminals, they are more likely to commit real offenses. And a nationwide study released this month by the Texas Public Policy Foundation found that Texas, for example, spent $367 a day for each youthful status offender that it incarcerated in 2012.

Some states, including California, have done away with the practice and others are cutting back on it. The number of incarcerations nationwide dropped by half from 2001 to 2011. Still, thousands of youngsters do time each year for status offenses, the study found.

Legislation by Rep. Tony Cardenas (D-Los Angeles) would ban the incarceration of status offenders across the country, requiring states to find more useful ways of handling these cases. HR 4123 doesn't eliminate penalties for status offenses, just the harsh discipline of lockup. Offenders could still be penalized in various ways, including required community service or Saturday classes to catch up in school. That, combined with counseling and other services for offenders and their families, would be fairer, more productive and almost certainly less expensive than having them do time.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
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