Legislation signed into law by New York’s governor will bar the arrest of most children younger than 12 years old, a move pushed for years by advocates decrying the state’s overly punitive justice system.
Passed in June and signed into law on Dec. 29 by Democratic Gov. Kathy Hochul, the legislation does not take effect for another year. But its impact is already being celebrated as a victory for juvenile justice reformers. Previously, New York law allowed the arrest of kids as young as 7.
“No traumatized child, especially those as young as 7 should have to endure the added trauma of the court and juvenile justice systems, especially when we know those experiences lead to worse outcomes,” said Assemblymember Andrew Hevesi (D), who sponsored the bill along with Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D), in a press statement.
The legislation takes an additional step toward decriminalizing childhood: raising the age required to incarcerate a child in a secure detention facility from the previous 10 to 13 years old. Children suspected of homicide can still be arrested.
Under the new law, police will still respond to 911 calls about children younger than 12 who may have committed crimes. But by the end of 2022, they will no longer be permitted to arrest or fingerprint them. Instead, local community-based agencies will be brought in to provide necessary services, such as mental and behavioral health care.
“Rather than rely on arrests and prosecutions of elementary school-aged children, New York will promote true community safety and safe access to mental health care for children by ensuring that its system of local, community-based services is available to families of children whose behavioral needs would otherwise expose them to police and the legal system,” Dawne Mitchell, the Legal Aid Society’s attorney-in-charge of the Juvenile Rights Practice, wrote in an press statement.
Since at least 1909, New York had set its minimum age of arrest and prosecution as young as age 7, the second lowest age set by statute in the United States, according to legal advocates.
At the end of this year, although children accused of homicide will be exempted under the new revisions to the state’s Family Court Act, the Legal Aid Society says the legislation will end the “overwhelming majority” of arrests and prosecutions of those 11 and younger.
Across New York in 2019 alone, police arrested more than 800 children aged 12 and younger, state data showed.
And while Black and Latino children comprise fewer than 60% of all kids in New York City, they make up more than 90% of those ages 7 through 11 who are arrested, according to data obtained by the Legal Aid Society from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, numbers that remain constant throughout the juvenile justice system.
“For decades, our young clients — the overwhelming majority of whom come from communities of color — have suffered significant trauma from these draconian practices, including lifelong harm,” Mitchell wrote.
Passage of the legislation follows publicized reports nationwide of the arrest and prosecution of young children in Brasher Falls and Rochester, New York; North Carolina and Maryland. And according to the Washington, D.C.-based National Juvenile Justice Network, as of January 2021, 28 U.S. states had no minimum age for prosecuting children. In contrast, the advocacy group reports, 14 is the most common minimum age of criminal responsibility internationally.
The American Bar Association is pushing the nation’s juvenile justice systems to improve the treatment of children accused of crimes — urging states to raise the minimum age for prosecution to 14, part of a larger campaign that also aims to prohibit the use of chemical agents on detained youth.
A bill introduced last year by California Rep. Karen Bass (D), the Childhood Offenders Rehabilitation and Safety Act, sought to bar the prosecution of children younger than 13 in federal courts, a legal change already approved in California, Massachusetts and Utah.
In supporting the New York legislation, child advocacy groups cited the growing body of research on children’s brain development, and how poorly laws have adjusted to the burgeoning scientific discoveries concerning impulse control, and the developmental challenges of understanding the connection between action and consequence. Legal consequences for children often resign them to lives of adult crime, studies show, failing to improve their lives and failing to better protect the public.
“Exposure to this process for 7- to 11-year-old kids increases the risk of dropping out of school, raises barriers to gaining meaningful employment later in life, and increases the likelihood of future criminal convictions and incarceration,” a press release by Sen. Bailey read.