Upending laws on the books since at least 1909, the New York Legislature passed a historic justice reform this week that bars the arrest and prosecution of children who are 11 years old and as young as 7.
More than a hundred young children are arrested and prosecuted in New York each year, overwhelmingly Black and Latino children who face off with law enforcement in their earliest years of life. If signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), New York would become the fourth state to prohibit the arrest of children younger than 12.
“Today we took a historic step towards fundamentally changing how the justice system treats children and ending the destructive cycles of youth incarceration. This bill will help keep children out of the systems that have disproportionately harmed young people of color,” state Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D) of the Bronx stated in a Thursday press release. “The immense harm done to children exposed at an early age can destroy a child’s future at the critical moments when they most need support and guidance.”
The governor has until the end of the year to sign or veto this session’s legislation.
If enacted, the juvenile justice bill would take effect one year from the governor’s signing, and exempt children accused of crimes involving homicide.
New York would join states including California, Utah and Massachusetts and countries around the world, including Canada, that have set minimum arrest ages of 12 or older. Nationwide, in 2019, 36,691 children between 10 and 12 years old were arrested, including 2,550 children under age 10.
According to the National Juvenile Justice Network, 14 states have introduced legislation this year to raise the minimum age of incarceration or prosecution. Connecticut’s legislature voted in favor of barring the arrest of children younger than 10, and Mississippi children must now be 12 or older to be incarcerated.
The issue gained widespread attention after recent incidents across New York: In January, Rochester police handcuffed and pepper-sprayed a fourth-grade girl after a domestic dispute call, an incident caught on video that sparked outrage after spreading online. Weeks later, a 7-year-old was arrested for rape in a hamlet near New York’s northern border, an incident that made headlines nationwide.
Under New York’s proposed law, children would be diverted to “differential response programs,” including existing mental health care and services already provided to children under the supervision of juvenile justice or child welfare systems. Counties and New York City would provide the services, overseen by the state’s Office of Children of Family Services. In contrast with current law, there would be no probation referral or delinquency court petitions filed on these young people.
“These are our little ones, and rather than help them get the services and support they need to succeed and ensure they are not doomed or defined by their trauma, our state has retraumatized them and put them on a trajectory to fail. This bill aims to correct that,” Assembly member Andrew Hevesi (D) of Queens, the bill’s sponsor, wrote in a joint statement with advocates and Bailey, the bill’s Senate sponsor.
In 2019, 820 children 12 and younger were arrested in New York, according to state data, and 121 petitions were filed against children under 12 in family court. State data also shows that as many as 90% of the pre-teen children who are arrested in New York City are Black or Latino.
Under the law, police could still respond to a 911 call about a child under 12 who may have committed a crime, but they would no longer be permitted to arrest or fingerprint them. Instead, they would coordinate with local social services departments to connect the young person to support programs. Children younger than 13 could also no longer be placed in secure detention.
The bill was endorsed by the Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus in May, and encountered little public opposition. That stands in contrast with the state’s last major juvenile justice reform, which raised the minimum age of automatic adult prosecution from 16 to 18 for most crimes. An early version of that 2017 bill included provisions that would have also raised the minimum age of arrest from 7 to 12, but they were not included in the final legislation.
Former Brooklyn state Sen. Velmanette Montgomery introduced a bill on the issue last year, but it never received a vote. This year’s bills attracted numerous cosponsors, with support from youth advocacy groups including Legal Aid Society, and the Children’s Defense Fund’s New York chapter. It passed by wide margins in both chambers in the capitol, now led by Democrats.
Charles Anthony Rice from Syracuse, New York made the case for the law during March virtual town hall. Rice, now 31, described being arrested as an 11-year-old, after a fight with a student and teacher. He was incarcerated instead of getting the help he needed, he told officials.
“That 11-year-old version of me wants to know what the two of you will do to ensure that children as young as 7 years old are no longer arrested and prosecuted,” Rice asked Sheila Poole, commissioner of New York’s Office of Children and Family Services, and Sen. Bailey.
Months later, with the reform he has long fought for ready to move to the governor’s desk, the youth partner with the advocacy group Families Together in New York State said he’s hopeful others will be spared his childhood trauma.
“This bill allows for youth not much different than myself to get the help they need and desire immediately,” he said. “It took me nearly two decades to get help and work through the trauma of my childhood. This bill helps to break the cycle and helps to eliminate the criminalization of childhood.”