Kentucky kids as young as five or six can legally end up in juvenile court because the state currently lacks a minimum age threshold, but new legislation would ban kids 12 and younger from being tried before a judge and prioritize community-based, age-appropriate solutions.
More than 2,000 children younger than 10 were arrested in 2019 nationwide, according to data from the National Juvenile Justice Network.
In states without minimum age thresholds, elementary school-age kids have been arrested for throwing temper tantrums, throwing a ball at another child's face, and refusing to go to the principal's office.
Cortney Downs, policy and advocacy director for Kentucky Youth Advocates, said the statistics are disturbing, given the science shows kids should not be treated like adults.
She noted the latest data revealed hundreds of complaints against kids in the Commonwealth.
"And so, in 2019, there were actually 691 complaints that were filed against 12-year-olds," Downs observed. "Anyone can file a complaint against a child, for any reason."
Downs pointed out of those cases only around 1% were serious offenses that went to court. She added despite making up only 11% of the population of 12-year-olds in the state, Black youths are disproportionately affected, making up 20% of the complaints.
Rachel Bingham, executive officer for family and juvenile services at the Kentucky Administrative Office of the Courts, said the state is already adopting a case-management approach with the goal of better outcomes for both kids and families.
"For this particular age group, our goal is to get them resources," Bingham explained. "To get the family resources, to get the family connected to supports that they need, and to be able to identify any types of things that are barriers for them."
Downs argued kids need age-appropriate interventions that address the root causes of a child's behavior, not criminal punishment. She clarified while the brain's reward system develops early in adolescence, cognitive control isn't cemented until early adulthood.
"We know that kids who are 10 to 13 are much less likely to think before they act," Downs contended. "They want immediate reward, and that's just how the brain is wired."
Research has shown locking young children up can derail academic performance and disrupt cognitive and emotional development. Detention also increases a child's chances of having future encounters with the juvenile justice system.