The National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) released a new report highlighting the importance of establishing and, in some states, raising the minimum age for trying youth in juvenile court. There are currently 28 states, including Kentucky, that do not have a minimum age threshold, meaning that children as young as five or six can legally have their complaints brought before a judge.

Despite a national decline in youth complaints (or arrests) over the last several years, NJJN reports that in 2019 more than 36,000 children between the ages of 10 and 12 were arrested nationally. What’s even more troubling is that more than 2,000 children under the age of 10 were also arrested in 2019.

This is unacceptable and largely the result of criminalizing behaviors that are normal for young children, like throwing a tantrum or playing too roughly during recess. We know that when children misbehave, age-appropriate and family-focused responses can be effective and that doesn’t include being in juvenile court or detention. Children learning to read “Diary of A Wimpy Kid” should be in school, not court.

Here are some reasons why:

  1. Young children do not have the mental capacity to understand court proceedings or what any legal consequences could mean for them in the moment or in the future.
  2. Research has shown that locking young children up can derail their educational achievement and interrupt their cognitive and emotional development. Detention also increases their chances of committing new offenses in the future.
  3. For some children, they enter the juvenile justice system having been exposed to substance misuse, family instability, child abuse and neglect, and more. By not identifying and addressing the root causes of their behavior, the cycle of instability and abuse is more likely to continue.
  4. National data from 2018 shows that more than 50 percent of youth who had cases brought before a juvenile court judge were children of color. Unfortunately, we’ve seen similar trends in Kentucky. In Jefferson County, home to almost half of Kentucky’s Black youth, Black children ages 12 and younger are disproportionately complained on when compared to their white peers.

As NJJN explains, for many young children the “support, learning, and accountability that their family provides for them is the best resource for handling mistakes or misbehavior.” By making commonsense shifts to utilize a more robust array of community-based services for young children who get in trouble, we can more effectively get them back on track, support them in becoming productive adults, and promote public safety.

Senate Bill 256, sponsored by Senator Alice Forgy Kerr, aims to do just that. It will allow court designated workers to use a case management approach when working with children ages 12 and younger; enable referrals to be made to the Family Accountability Intervention and Response (FAIR) teams and the Department for Community Based Services (DCBS) for assessments and additional services, when appropriate; and would preserve the county attorney’s discretion when deciding whether or not to move forward with cases involving children ages 12 and younger.

Find out who your state legislator is and their contact information through our legislator lookup tool to call, email, or schedule an in-person or virtual meeting and to tell them why you support establishing a minimum age for trying young children in juvenile court.

Read the National Juvenile Justice Network’s Policy Platform: “Raise the Minimum Age for Trying Children in Court” here and policy toolkit, with talking points and additional information, here.

Learn more about the Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children 2021 priority to establish a minimum age of 12 years old that a child can be charged with an offense. Stay up-to-date on Blueprint for Kentucky’s Children priorities that are good for kids with our Kentucky General Assembly Bill Tracker