Children as young as six-years-old have been arrested in the U.S., which remains one of the only countries without a nationally mandated standard for juvenile prosecution. As of May 2022, just under half of states in the U.S. still have no minimum age for prosecuting children. 

Six-year-olds are still learning how to regulate their emotions. Throwing a tantrum should not lead to the arrest of a child but should instead be a segue to introducing the child to emotional regulation and understanding how to deal with the big feelings they are experiencing.

It’s statistically proven that youth prisons don’t prevent or stop crime when 70 to 80 percent of youth are rearrested within a few years. Incarceration as the default ignores what we know about young people’s capacity to change, their phases of development and maturation process, and the inherent biases in the system toward certain youth. Youth of color are also disproportionately represented within the juvenile justice system and this overrepresentation allows for racial inequities to continue to thrive. 

In reality, most children shouldn’t even be brought into the system, as three-quarters of confined youth did not commit a violent offense. Additionally, 90 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system have experienced at least one form of childhood trauma and are being brought into the system to face even more trauma. Processing and confining children in the juvenile justice system exposes them to damaging collateral consequences, such as barriers to education and employment, physical and sexual abuse, suicide, and disruptions to mental and physical development. 

The Annie E. Casey Foundation takes a look at the prevalence of trauma among youth in the juvenile justice system within the contents of a new fact sheet produced by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Child and adolescent health experts echo calls for reform within the juvenile justice system as data shows how emotionally and mentally damaging it can be to expose children to the system.

AAP recommends the following juvenile justice reforms:

  • Advance poli­cies and com­mu­ni­ty action to address the root caus­es of juve­nile jus­tice involve­ment, includ­ing sys­temic racial dis­par­i­ties as well as unad­dressed men­tal health, med­ical, and legal needs. 
  • Ensure that incar­cer­a­tion for chil­dren and young peo­ple is used only as a last resort, which means after diver­sion and oth­er com­mu­ni­ty-based inter­ven­tions have been deployed.
  • End exces­sive­ly puni­tive and devel­op­men­tal­ly inap­pro­pri­ate prac­tices that serve to fur­ther trau­ma­tize children. AAP cit­ed iso­la­tion, soli­tary con­fine­ment, and sen­tences of life with­out parole as par­tic­u­lar­ly harsh prac­tices that should be aban­doned in favor of approach­es that bet­ter sup­port the devel­op­men­tal needs of young people.

Historically, youth crime has often been addressed with incarceration and punishment rather than fully understanding the root of what might be causing the behavior. For our youth, we need to do better and allow young people spaces to heal and address the root of the problem rather than processing and confining children in the juvenile justice system, exacerbating underlying trauma. By raising the minimum age in Kentucky, we can prevent more children from being exposed to the system and extend necessary support to effectively get them on track for a bright future. 

Find out who your state legislator is along with 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.

You can read the National Juvenile Justice Network’s Policy Platform: “Raise the Minimum Age for Trying Children in Court” here and their policy toolkit along with talking points here.

Image from Pixabay