As a public defender working in Greensboro, North Carolina, I had hundreds of clients over the years. While some of the oldest clients I had were riddled with health issues and long histories of mental illness, some of my youngest clients hardly even knew what was going on.
Around 2015, I had a 6-year-old client who was accused of stealing a pair of earrings from a Claire’s Boutique in the local mall. This little girl wasn’t really aware of anything that was going on and had no clue why she was there; she had limited ability to communicate with me or assist in any sort of defense. In fact, due to the processing time for the petition, the incident had occurred at least a month or so before our first court date and she had no recollection of what she was accused of doing.
“Why on earth were we in court for this, she’s 6?” is what came to my mind, and that’s effectively what I said to the prosecutor. Fortunately, I had a reasonable prosecutor who dismissed it, but some damage had already been done. Her juvenile file was created, and she had that first interaction with the court system, which most advocates know increases children’s chances of being involved with the system in the future. She was effectively stamped as a “problem child” with this pointless court interaction.
This little girl is hardly alone. More than half the states (28) still have no minimum age for prosecuting children in juvenile court, and of the states that have passed minimum age laws, most have set it far too young. While my home state of North Carolina has the unfortunate distinction of setting the lowest minimum age, of 6 years old, several other states haven’t raised the bar much higher, setting the minimum age between 7 to 10 years old.
Nebraska’s minimum age is 11, and three states (California, Massachusetts and Utah) have recently set minimum ages at 12 years old. No state in the country has set its minimum age of prosecution to 14 years old, which is the most common minimum age internationally and is the age recommended by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
Common sense would seem to dictate that young children don’t belong in juvenile court. They’re too young to understand legal proceedings, connect proceedings to their behavior in any meaningful way or comprehend the complexities of supervision and probation. Research has found that approximately one-third of 11- to 13-year-olds were as impaired in terms of competency as seriously mentally ill adults. Young children are also at greater risk of being victims of violence when in custody.
Additionally, incarceration can be so traumatizing that it disrupts children’s healthy brain development and has lingering harmful effects. Incarceration at a young age (7 to 13 years old) is associated with the highest rates of poor adult health outcomes for both physical and mental health compared to youth who were first incarcerated at older ages and youth who were never incarcerated. Given all the detriments of involving young children in the justice system, it should come as no surprise that justice system involvement can actually increase the chances that children will commit a future offense, thereby harming, rather than helping, the cause of public safety.
Rather than traumatizing children and branding them with a stigma and a record that can harm them well into adulthood, we should instead rely on the time-honored tradition of having families lead the response when children make mistakes.
For children struggling with more significant challenges – such as substance abuse, family fragmentation, academic failure, or abuse and neglect – other systems can address the root causes of a child’s challenges without the negative impacts of justice system involvement. In fact, for many white children, allowing families to choose the best approach for their children is how schools and law enforcement usually respond. It is young Black and brown children who are disproportionately processed in juvenile court.
Let’s end the antiquated practice of arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating young children, and lead with providing all children the compassion, positive support, and reinforcement they need to be successful. We must establish a national minimum age of 14 for juvenile court jurisdiction.