In a wooded area near the Canada-US border this year, state police arrested a resident of Brasher Falls, New York, which has a population of around 1,000. The resident was charged with rape.
The pain caused by this type of crime often tears a small town apart, but it does not exceed its limits. But after the arrest on March 23, news of the arrest spread far beyond the village.
The resident accused of rape was seven years old.
Little is known about the circumstances of the arrest, the details of the charges or how the case was resolved. Records of cases involving children are confidential. But in New York City, the arrest has rekindled a discussion about how the justice system treats so-called juvenile offenders – children between the ages of 7 and 18 whose cases are heard in family courts.
Judges, juvenile justice experts and lawyers who have dealt with cases like this, on both the prosecution and defense sides, say the arrests traumatize children, get them entangled in the justice system and make recurrence more likely. Young children are rarely billed as adults. But arresting them and accusing them in any way, say those who study the matter, ignore the scientific facts about brain development, and the effort to achieve justice often produces the opposite result.
“What we know now is that science does not support the trial of second-grade children,” said Dawne Mitchell, who heads youth rights at the Legal Aid Society, a legal aid organization. . Citing cognitive science articles that demonstrate that young children are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions and that emphasize the psychological trauma caused when handcuffed and treated, Mitchell is one of many experts at across the country urging states to raise the minimum age for this type of process.
The Brasher Falls incident in November and a video showing police handcuffing and spraying a nine-year-old girl in the back of a Rochester police car in January raised attention to a bill pending in the New York State. Legislature. The bill would raise the minimum age at which a child can be prosecuted as a juvenile delinquent to 12, from seven today (except for murder charges), and refer cases involving young children to social services and to other departments.
The proposal follows a similar move to raise the age at which people can be criminally charged into adulthood. In 2019, New York State completed a phased implementation that is raising the age at which teens can be charged as adults for misdemeanors and minor felonies from 16 to 18.
The attempt to change the so-called age of delinquency is progressing more slowly.
Despite a seemingly broad consensus – which includes a UN call in 2018 for countries to raise the minimum age for defendants in criminal trials to 14 – the bill has not gained much legislative speed. This is in part because the number of criminal cases opened against young children is relatively low, said N. Nick Perry, representative for the state of Brooklyn, New York, who was a supporter of the bill during. its introduction in 2018.
“There aren’t a lot of seven-year-olds who get embroiled in serious criminal charges,” said Perry, who thinks the law should pass the current session of the legislature. “If something serious does not draw attention to the need to update or change the law, it will tend to stay as it is, even if it is inappropriate.”
But other states have started to change their laws. In 2018, Massachusetts raised the minimum age for defendants in criminal cases from seven to 12. Mississippi recently passed a law that raises the age at which children can be sent to detention centers from 10 to 12 years old. Similar bills are under consideration in more than half a dozen American states.
Yet more than half of the states in the United States do not have a minimum age for prosecution or arrest. Of those that do, only North Carolina, which allows children as young as six to be prosecuted as delinquents, has a lower limit than New York.
A few months ago in North Carolina, a six-year-old boy was arrested and brought to justice after picking up a tulip while waiting at a bus stop, according to an article in the “Herald-Sun” newspaper. from the city. Durham.
The case was dismissed without charge, but it caused quite a stir. “Should a child who believes in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy be considered capable of making life-changing decisions?” Asked JH Corpening, president of the New Hanover County District Court, expressing his belief that children this age are unaware of the consequences of behavior that can be characterized as criminal. North Carolina is also considering changing its law.
New York’s proposal to refer children under 12 and accused of serious crimes to social service agencies would sort of codify what experts say already happens frequently.
In New York State, for example, of the hundreds of children under 12 who were arrested in 2019, only 121 cases became family justice cases, according to records obtained by the Children’s Defense Fund- New York, new division of the. national legal aid body.
Child detention also tends to disproportionately affect certain races. In 2019, more than 90% of children aged seven to 11 held in New York City were black or Hispanic, according to data provided by Legal Aid, even though those groups make up only 57% of the city’s child population. .
White children, experts say, are more likely to be referred to therapists or referred to their parents for behaviors similar to those that result in black children’s imprisonment, a pattern that is reproducing across the country.
There appears to be little or no organized opposition to raising the age of delinquency. But those who resist say it would restrict the actions of the justice system, according to Jeffrey Butts, director of the Center for Research and Evaluation at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. In rare cases involving particularly dangerous children, he said, incarceration can prevent them from becoming a risk to others.
“There will always be cases where the authorities do not have the necessary resources,” Butts said. “Any limit set by law is a commitment that fundamentally recognizes that we do not have a legal system capable of making complex decisions.”
Many people who study juvenile justice say that accused youth are often victims of abuse. As a child, Charles Rice’s anger over the physical and sexual abuse he said he suffered at home erupted into explosions at school.
One afternoon, while working on a wire sculpture in a fifth-grade art class at his elementary school in Syracuse, New York, he had an argument with a classmate. The professor intervened and Charles took one of the instruments he was using in art class – a stylus – and cut the professor off. Rice, who is black, was arrested.
He spent eight months in a juvenile detention center. Rice, 31, now advocates for at-risk youth and believes if he was white he would have been referred for therapy. “It was the criminalization of my childhood,” he said. “My behavior was a request for help, not handcuffs.”
In Massachusetts, in the three years since the new law took effect, there has been no increase in statistics on criminal activity by children, according to Sana Fadel, deputy director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, despite the workload of the juvenile court system. fell by 40%. Children benefit from support programs focused on providing social services, she said.
“The justice system is probably 100 years behind, because the test that is usually given is’ do you understand that this is wrong and that it is true? “said Jane Tewksbury, who was a Massachusetts attorney and later commissioner of the state’s Department of Youth Services.” A four-year-old can say yes, but that doesn’t mean if she stabbed someone with a pencil, she knew exactly what she was doing. “
Court proceedings can be incomprehensible to young children. When Debbie Freitas, a lawyer from Lowell, Mass., Accompanied an eight-year-old client to a magistrate’s hearing in 2018 for bringing a butter knife to school, the kid asked, “Wow , let’s see the president? », Remembers Freitas. “They are so small they don’t even understand the basics of what’s going on.”
News of the detention in Brasher Falls shocked residents, said Mark Peets, the county administrator. “You can’t imagine a seven-year-old being arrested; you see all these ‘real crime’ shows on TV and you never think they could involve a seven year old, ”he said.
But in addition to the collective pain for the victim, he said, there is also the feeling that the young abuser also needs help.
“Good and bad are there, but there has to be a social service protocol,” said Peets, “a way to deal with it without being treated almost like an adult.”