Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

The Double-Edged Sword of Parens Patriae: Status Offenders and the Punitive Reach of the Juvenile Justice System

Academic journal article Notre Dame Law Review

The Double-Edged Sword of Parens Patriae: Status Offenders and the Punitive Reach of the Juvenile Justice System

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

To many, ditching school, feuding with parents, and staying out late are hallmarks of adolescence. In 2014, however, these acts and other similar ones formed the basis of one out of every eleven juvenile court cases in America. (2) Adolescents convicted in these cases are known as status offenders--juveniles who have committed "a noncriminal act that is considered a law violation only because of [the] youth's status as a minor." (3) Although the particular offenses designated as status offenses vary by state, the most commonly adjudicated status offenses include truancy, ungovernability, and curfew violations, as well as running away from home and underage alcohol consumption. (4) Since status offenses are not technically criminal acts, those who commit these offenses are not classified as juvenile delinquents (5) by the juvenile justice system. As a result, states are not required to guarantee due process protections to status offenders during their initial disposition hearings--and many do not. (6) An adolescent accused of being a status offender will likely enter her disposition hearing without an attorney; (7) she will likely be adjudicated a status offender by a preponderance of the evidence rather than by beyond a reasonable doubt; (8) and the court that adjudicates her will likely prevent her from asserting due process rights like the right against self-incrimination. (9)

States often justify their refusal to guarantee status offenders due process by invoking the principle of parens patriae, which embodies the idea that, in the juvenile justice system, the state should look to rehabilitate juveniles rather than punish them. (10) Under parens patriae, the court is meant to be a guiding, almost parental, force rather than a punitive one. Despite this rationale, status offenders can still be subject to sanction by the court, (11) and therefore are often just as vulnerable to the punitive reach of the juvenile justice system as their delinquent counterparts. Indeed, status offenders are often subject to some of the same sanctions that juvenile delinquents receive: fines; probation; GPS monitoring; and, in some situations, incarceration, are all punishments that may follow disposition as a status offender. (12) As a result, status offenders often have little protection against punishment that may outstrip the severity of their actions.

This Note will argue that, despite the fact that adjudication as a status offender has the potential to lead to punitive outcomes, the rehabilitative rationale of parens patriae that lies behind the status offender designation ensures that juveniles charged under this category are not afforded the procedural protections that they are due under the Constitution's Due Process Clause. This conundrum--that the rehabilitative rationale meant to protect juveniles actually leaves them more vulnerable to punishment--is not confined to the status offender context. Instead, the juvenile system as a whole suffers from the failures that result from promises of rehabilitation made by a largely punitive system. And despite Supreme Court rulings that have provided due process to juvenile delinquents, the juvenile system's treatment of status offenders illustrates that any promise of rehabilitation from the juvenile justice system is functionally a dead letter. As a result, status offenders should not simply be afforded due process protections, but instead should be removed completely from a system that claims not to punish them and cannot successfully rehabilitate them.

Part I of this Note will provide a brief history of the juvenile justice system, its initial rehabilitative goals, and how these rehabilitative goals have survived despite legal and social shifts. Part II will discuss the tenuous position that status offenders occupy in the juvenile system and the punitive implications that result from this position. Part III will discuss the due process issues that stem from the juvenile system's treatment of status offenders. …

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