You’re standing in an elementary school hallway. A fourth grader and a fifth grader get into a fight. Nervous to intervene, a school employee calls the police. A cruiser arrives quickly. The children are arrested and led from school in handcuffs.
Hard to imagine? It’s allowed, and it’s happening in Connecticut schools today.
In fact, Connecticut kids as young as seven are being arrested. And, though a host of organizations advising the legislature requested our state’s age of adjudication be raised to 12 – so that a child would have to be at least a sixth of seventh grader to be pulled into our criminal justice system – a bill that has cleared the State House and is on its way to the Senate would only raise the age to 10.
If we’re going to try to fix the system, why continue allowing elementary school children to be arrested, as Louisiana and Mississippi do – rather than raising the age to 12?
In 2019, police arrested 402 children under 12 years of age in Connecticut. Of these, 387 were 10-12. Just 15 were under age 10.
Members of the Juvenile Justice and Policy Oversight Committee, to which Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters belongs, all agree that raising the minimum age for arrest to 12 is the right next step.
Why? Consider the Office of Child Advocate’s (OCA) review of child arrests in Waterbury Public Schools, the district with the highest number of police calls.
In 2019, the median age of a child reported to the police was 9. Dozens of children ages 5-14 were reported to the police for misdemeanors. Seventy-nine percent of calls were about behavioral incidents including “tantrums, running out of the school, hitting and scratching themselves or staff, head banging, and making threats to harm themselves or others.”
The majority of cases OCA reviewed showed children arrested were students with disabilities – and the person calling the police was often a special education teacher who didn’t know how to handle their behavior.
Do we want to live in a society where the behaviors of young children with disabilities are criminalized? While most of us would say “no,” we need to understand that, today, that’s exactly what we’re doing.
For more than 350 Connecticut kids aged 10-12 last year, childhood behavioral issues led to an arrest record.
Research shows that children are fundamentally less able than adults to weigh the consequences of their actions — and that the younger a child is, the less competent they are likely to be.
Research also shows that children brought into the juvenile justice system are more likely to re-offend than those who are put in diversion programs and given the supports needed to help them address causes of their behavior.
Why does Connecticut allow second graders to be arrested and tried in court?
Back in 1959, when this law was first enacted, bringing children as young as seven to court made sense to many policy makers. Understanding of brain development was limited, and the notion that a child should be “held responsible” for his or her actions seemed logical.
Given what we know today, it’s inexcusable. It’s well established that the human brain develops differentially over time, with the prefrontal cortex – which manages mental processes like problem solving, planning and impulse-control – not developing fully until a person is 25.
Most developmental psychologists argue that psychological immaturity produces deficits of understanding and impairments of judgement that render children legally incompetent.
Meaning a young child should get education and guidance, not an introduction to the juvenile justice system, when they have a meltdown or threaten to harm themselves or others.
Programs like therapeutic counseling, mentoring, and restorative justice – meaning a child must connect with those she/he wronged and make restitution – address the issues that often underlie antisocial behavior.
We need to offer these programs – rather than arrest – to children with behavioral issues.
Diversion programs cost less and have greater impact than the juvenile justice system. Big Brothers Big Sisters and most other youth-serving organizations support raising the age at which a child can be arrested and jailed to 12. For those committed to strengthening children’s paths to success, keeping young kids out of our criminal justice system is key.
Let’s make education and support – rather than crime and punishment – central to how we respond to children struggling with behavioral issues. Doing so would align our approach with what science – and morality – tell us about how to treat children.
Andy Fleischmann is President & CEO of Nutmeg Big Brothers Big Sisters, a nonprofit mentoring organization that serves children in 132 of Connecticut’s cities and towns. From 2005 until 2019, he served as House Chairman of the Connecticut General Assembly’s Education Committee.