A report released Thursday by Kentucky Youth Advocates said that between 2013 and 2015, children as young as 4, 5 and 6 years old had formal complaints filed against them in Kentucky courts.
The advocacy group’s report comes as State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, chairman of the Kentucky Senate Judiciary Committee, prepares to file legislation in the General Assembly to establish a minimum age of criminal responsibility. Westerfield said he is still working on the bill but that the ages could be between 10 and 12.
Kentucky law puts no limits on the age at which a child may be charged. Children under 10 generally don’t go to juvenile detention centers, but are put in state custody.
“Establishing a minimum age of criminal responsibility demonstrates Kentucky’s commitment to addressing problem behavior in the most effective way,” Westerfield said.
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Westerfield, R-Hopkinsville, said his impending legislation does not mean that serious crimes committed by young children should be ignored.
In 2015, 192 children 10 years and younger were charged in court; 332 11-year-olds were charged, and 888 12-year-olds. Those numbers were down from 2013, according to a Kentucky Youth Advocates analysis of Administrative Office of the Courts data. The numbers of children ages 4, 5, and 6 who had complaints filed against them in court were small, but the fact that such cases existed at all was significant, Kentucky Youth Advocates officials said.
The report says that the best solution for the future of Kentucky kids and Kentucky communities is to change state law to implement an appropriate, practical response to child behavior and not formally charge children ages 12 and under in the court system.
Alternative responses should include finding the right system to respond to the needs of children age 12 and younger and connecting the child and family to community services that will strengthen a child’s development and get them on track to becoming successful adults, the report said.
Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, said Thursday that “we need to hold kids accountable for mistakes, and we also need to recognize that what works for young kids is different than what works for older kids.”
“Young children don’t belong in the court room. Young children don’t belong in prison-like settings. Those options can actually backfire,” Brooks said.
The most practical solutions address root causes of behavior and prevent children from getting into trouble later in life, he said. This could include mental health treatment for the child or family interventions, Brooks said.
Any adult can press charges (called complaints in the juvenile system) against young children with the court for behaviors like skipping school, not following parent or school rules, stealing, playground scuffles, yelling at someone, or running away from home, the report said.
Many times, county attorneys dismiss complaints filed against young children because they find the behavior does not meet the criteria to prosecute for a crime. In other instances, the case is diverted to the Court Designated Worker program, and if successful with their diversion the case would result in no court record or action. However, if the diversion is unsuccessfully completed, a formal court record is then possible. The Kentucky Youth Advocates report said that kind of diversion can be an effective option for older children, but there are more appropriate ways to respond to young children,
The best solutions address root causes and prevent children from getting into trouble, the report said.