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.
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