Kids are kids, and we should not expect them to act like tiny adults. However, when our response to elementary school-age children who get in trouble involves the juvenile justice system, that’s exactly what we’re doing. Interacting with police, being in court, and experiencing incarceration can be traumatic. It can also negatively impact a child’s development, interrupt their schooling, and keep them in a system that’s easy to get into and difficult to get out of.
Instead, we need interventions and responses that address the root causes of their behavior and ensure brighter futures for every child.
Why do we need to establish a minimum age that a child can be charged with an offense in Kentucky?
In recent years we’ve seen several national stories about young children being arrested: a 6-year-old boy for picking a flower at the bus stop; a 6-year-old girl for throwing a tantrum at school; and a 10-year-old boy for pretending to play Fortnite with a friend outside. Across the country, nearly 37,000 children ages 10 to 12 and more than 2,500 children under the age of 10 were arrested in 2019. In Kentucky, there were 325 unique complaints filed against children between the ages of 8 and 12 in 2020.
Much of this can be attributed to more than half of all states, including Kentucky, not having a set minimum age, or a legal threshold at which point a child can be arrested, detained, or have a case prosecuted in court. It is also the result of criminalizing normal childhood behavior.
“There are a lot of studies that talk about the effect of trauma on child development and arresting a 7-year-old, putting them in handcuffs and taking them out of school, that’s trauma and trauma disrupts normal development,” Karol Mason, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York stated. She went on to explain that arrests do not guarantee subsequent involvement in the criminal or juvenile justice systems but involvement at a young age does increase the likelihood that it could happen.
What are other states doing?
With a growing body of evidence pointing to the negative impact of justice involvement on children, 14 states introduced legislation to establish or raise the minimum age in 2021. Mississippi successfully raised their age of commitment from 10 to 12-years-old and Connecticut raised their minimum age from 7 to 10-years-old. And in 2020, Utah set a minimum age of 11.
At the federal level, the U.S. Congress also introduced comprehensive bipartisan legislation this year. The Childhood Offenders Rehabilitation and Safety Act of 2021 , sponsored by Congresswoman Karen Bass (D-CA) and Congressmen Tony Cardenas (D-CA) and Bruce Westerman (R-AR), will define juveniles as people who are over the age of 12 but under the age of 18 and prohibit federal prosecution of crimes committed by anyone under the age of 13. The bill will also raise the age for trying a teen as an adult in federal court from 15-years-old to 16-years-old.
How do we hold kids accountable outside of the justice system?
When we consider new ways of holding young people accountable outside of the juvenile justice system, it’s critical to utilize age-appropriate, youth-centered interventions. Data shows that a sizeable percentage of complaints against young children comes from schools, meaning our understanding of appropriate responses to disruptive or negative behaviors needs to shift from criminal to proportional discipline. For example, several school districts in Maryland have created Student Support Teams to assess the academic and/or behavioral needs of specific students. The team is tasked with documenting concerns, identifying positive goals based on the students’ individual needs, preparing recommendations for the referring staff member to agree to implement, and monitoring the effectiveness of the interventions.
Another option is implementing restorative justice practices in schools. According to a recent report from the National Education Policy Center, restorative justice is both “proactive and responsive in nurturing healthy relationships, repairing harm, transforming conflict, and promoting justice and equity.” It presents a unique opportunity for young people to take responsibility for their actions through facilitated conversations and for school staff to develop targeted agreements to keep students on track. More broadly, studies show that restorative practices in schools are generally well received by students, school staff and parents, and can improve social interactions and school climate.
As NJJN explains in their 2020 policy platform, for many children the “support, learning and accountability that their family provides for them is the best resource for handling mistakes or misbehavior.”
By adjusting our responses and utilizing a wide array of community-based services, we can better support the needs and development of every young person in the Commonwealth.
What can advocates do?
Find out who your congressperson is here and call, email, or schedule a meeting with them to ask for their support of Childhood Offenders Rehabilitation and Safety Act of 2021. You can also find your state legislators and their contact information through our legislator lookup tool to tell them why you support establishing a minimum age that a child can be charged with an offense.