Incorrigibility: Juvenile Laws

Incorrigibility laws still exist, although they often go by different terms.

By , J.D.
Updated by Rebecca Pirius, Attorney · Mitchell Hamline School of Law
Updated 11/30/2023

The law treats crimes committed by children very differently than adults. Criminal acts by juveniles—people under the age of 18—are dealt with through the juvenile justice system instead of the criminal justice system. The juvenile system has its own rules, procedures, and even offenses that apply only to juveniles—called status offenses. One of these status offenses, incorrigibility, occurs when a child refuses to accept the authority and discipline of adults.

What Does Incorrigible Mean?

Because children do not have the same rights or duties as adults, the law expects them to comply with the lawful orders given by parents, guardians, or legal custodians. Legal custodians include anyone who has the right to care for or supervise the child, such as teachers, childcare providers, or summer camp staff.

A child is considered incorrigible when the child repeatedly or habitually disobeys the direction of the child's lawful parents, guardians, or legal custodians.

Not many states use the term "incorrigible" anymore. Other terms used to describe this behavior include "ungovernable" or "habitually disobedient." Depending on the laws in a state, a child falling under this definition might be considered a "child or person in need of services or supervision." In the courts and social services agencies, they often use acronyms such as "CHIPS," "PINS," or "CHINS."

What Behaviors Result in Juvenile Incorrigibility?

Of course, children often disobey their parents, educators, and other adults. At what point does simple disobedience become incorrigibility? Though state laws differ, there are several key components to determining if a child is incorrigible.

Disruptive, dangerous, disobedient. It isn't enough for a child to simply refuse to eat their vegetables or go to bed on time. In order to qualify as incorrigible, a child's actions must be disruptive or dangerous. The child's actions must threaten the welfare, order, or safety of the environment. For example, a child who refuses to accept the discipline of a teacher or school administrator disrupts the order of the school environment, making such actions disruptive. Or a child who acts out violently at home by screaming, hitting, and throwing objects may be considered incorrigible.

Repeated actions. A juvenile must commit more than one act of disobedience or other status offense to be considered incorrigible. Most states use the terms "habitually," "repeatedly," or "persistently" rather than give a concrete number.

Status offenses. Some states add status offenses—such as truancy, running away from home, curfew violations, and underage drinking and smoking—to their definition of "incorrigibility." While a child can get in trouble for one violation of a status offense, generally, it's repeat violations that lead to a finding of incorrigibility. So, if a child is repeatedly caught smoking in a school bathroom or gets picked up multiple times for curfew violations, these acts might be considered incorrigible behavior.

What Happens in an Incorrigibility Case?

It's usually up to a juvenile court to determine if a child is incorrigible. The process differs slightly among states but typically begins when a parent, guardian, custodian, or child therapist submits a petition or statement to a social services agency, prosecutor, or juvenile intake officer.

The petition asks for an investigation or a hearing to determine if the child is "incorrigible" or "in need of supervision or services." After that, the prosecutor will determine how to proceed with the case, which may end in one of several ways:

  • Divert the case. A prosecutor may choose not to pursue any formal or informal proceeding. The circumstances when a prosecutor may choose to take this course differ. The prosecutor may try to initially divert the case out of the court system if other services may be helpful to the child and family, such as counseling or support services.
  • Informal proceeding. An informal juvenile proceeding is one in which the prosecutor brings the juvenile before a court official. This official is typically a judge, but it may also be a probation officer. The judge may then give the juvenile a lecture and a warning, order therapy or counseling, or impose probation, a fine, or community service. The process is informal because the prosecutor never enters a formal charge against the juvenile.
  • Formal proceeding. If the prosecutor believes the child's actions warrant formal charges, the juvenile will face a formal proceeding, often called a "juvenile hearing" or an "adjudicatory hearing." Depending on the circumstances, this hearing might go through family court or a juvenile court devoted to child services, rather than delinquency matters. If the child is formally charged with an offense, the proceedings will likely go through juvenile delinquency court (similar to adult criminal court).

How Is Incorrigibility Punished?

Once a court determines that a juvenile is incorrigible, it can impose a range of dispositions from counseling to transfer of custody. Judges in these situations can also impose court orders on the parents or legal guardians.

Individual or family counseling. A judge might start with individual therapy for the child or incorporate family counseling into the mix. If the child needs treatment for chemical dependency, a judge may order dependency or addiction counseling or awareness programming.

Educational or support programs. A court may order a child to attend certain educational programs that provide academic support or services to help youth from becoming justice involved.

Community service. The youth may be sentenced to perform community service. The court may order the juvenile to complete a specific number of hours or a service project.

Supervision or probation. The court may impose a probation sentence that requires the juvenile to regularly contact a probation officer for a set amount of time. The juvenile must comply with the terms established by the court and the officer, such as attending school regularly, complying with a curfew, and not committing more offenses.

Fines or restitution. The law may permit a judge to order the child to pay a fine or restitution. Restitution payments go directly to victims and are common in situations where a child damaged property or caused injuries.

Detention or out-of-home placement. Meant to be a last resort, a court may order out-of-home placement of a child into a foster home, residential program, or juvenile detention center. In some cases, this option might be used to take a child out of a dangerous home situation. Other times, it can be a form of punishment for the child's behavior. (Federal law prohibits authorities from placing juveniles in adult lockups, except in temporary and exceptional circumstances.)

Talk to a Lawyer

Just as adults have specific rights in the criminal justice system, juveniles have rights in the juvenile justice system. Juveniles, parents, administrators, and guardians who have questions or who need advice should seek out an experienced attorney as soon as possible. Some states will appoint counsel if a child or parent cannot afford it.

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