The episode inspired protests and drew condemnation from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), the mayor of Rochester and others. It also highlighted the problem of criminalizing childhood misbehavior or mental health problems. (The girl’s mother said she’d told an officer her daughter was having a mental health breakdown.)
As longtime researchers of juvenile justice (one of us is a social worker; the other a pediatrician), we know that the juvenile justice system is not the place to address the behavioral or health needs of young children. Yet in the United States, more than 100 years after the founding of the first juvenile courts, 28 states still have no minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction. And 47 states have the power to forcibly arrest elementary-school-age children (those under 12) and do so regularly.
This runs contrary to the 2019 recommendations updating the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which asks countries to honor children’s rights in part by setting a minimum age — of at least 14 — at which they can enter a juvenile or criminal legal system. The United States is the only U.N. member that has not ratified this convention. (Some U.N. member countries, including Finland and Denmark, have set this age threshold even higher.)
The infractions that lead to arrests of children are often minor, such as school-related discipline or curfew violations. But with no minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction, a child of any age can be arrested and even incarcerated. It’s hard to imagine a 10-year-old sleeping in the harsh environment of a juvenile hall, but it happens. For the 22 states that have minimum-age laws, 18 of these boundaries are set at 10 or younger, which fails to protect the most vulnerable young children. Only three states — California, Utah and Massachusetts — have a minimum age of 12; Nebraska’s is 11. In New York, where the girl was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed, the minimum age is 7.
Our research into young children’s involvement in the justice system convinces us that arresting children is counterproductive and unethical. Our studies, based on national data, find that involvement in the justice system at young ages is linked with adverse health outcomes. When confined, children are subjected to abuse and fear, leading to trauma that is likely to increase behavioral and mental health problems, and elevate risk for further justice involvement. Many children who come into conflict with the law at young ages have unmet health or social needs that are far better addressed by family or by mental health or other supportive services.
We have also found that arresting children propels a trajectory of racial disparities. In 2018, U.S. juvenile courts processed nearly 750,000 new cases, including those of 27,500 children under 12. Thirty-five percent of these children were Black, despite Black youths making up only 14 percent of the U.S. child population. Compared with White children, Black youths under 12 were 2.5 times more likely to be referred to juvenile court.
Our research has revealed clear patterns of systemic racism: Black children’s overrepresentation in the justice system leads to a series of decisions by police and probation officers, attorneys, and judges that are compounded at each stage of processing — and result in striking racial disparities in sentencing, incarceration and later health consequences.
Since 2018, when California enacted a law setting a minimum age of 12 for children to enter the juvenile court system (with some exceptions), numerous state proposals to set or raise the minimum age have followed. But stronger and more consistent reform is needed.
The bright side: This problem is solvable. The National Juvenile Justice Network has proposed a policy platform that calls on each state to end the criminalization of children through minimum-age legislation. The United States should set a national minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction of at least 12, in line with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics. It should also, finally, ratify the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child.
We urge the Biden-Harris administration and Congress to set a U.S. minimum age of jurisdiction that would ensure no child is subject to the type of brutal treatment exposed by the Rochester video. Children in emotional distress, facing handcuffs and pepper spray, should never have to shout, “I am a child!” because of laws that permit police officers to forget.