In the US, there is no federally mandated minimum age of court jurisdiction, and many states have not set minimum age policies, including Florida. Vitoria De Francisco Lopes examines policies from over 200 Florida law enforcement agencies on arrests involving children and finds that these policies are not effective in lowering the number of juvenile arrests. Looking at examples from other US states and Canada, she argues that more explicit and clear instructions and policies can help reduce children’s involvement with the Florida legal system.
In 2019, over 60,000 children aged 12 and under were arrested or referred to the juvenile justice system in the United States. Despite legislative efforts to protect young children from the harmful effects of the justice system, minimum age statutes continue to be overlooked by politicians and academics alike. In Florida, the state’s lack of minimum age statute has left local-level agencies with the responsibility to guide officers in their interactions with young children and youth.
The minimum age of court jurisdiction refers to the youngest age a child can be held responsible criminally for an offense. Advocates of establishing minimum age of court jurisdiction statutes have highlighted various issues related to the involvement of young children in the justice system. Some of those being that children have limited capacity to stand trial, formal involvement may increase criminality through the life course, and that delinquency may be better addressed outside the justice system.
While the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended the minimum age of court jurisdiction should be set at 14, the United States has yet to establish a national minimum age for court jurisdiction. Though 21 states have established minimum age policies ranging from 6 to 12, states such as Florida, without a minimum age statute, often rely on different approaches that largely rely on officer discretion.
Law enforcement officials clearly occupy a unique position in the juvenile justice process due to their discretionary power. Due to the unique nature of law enforcement in the decision-making process, policies, procedures, and rules have been implemented to control the discretion of officers. Policy makers and law enforcement administrators believe agency-level policies and regulations are a powerful way to control police discretion. However, existing research offers little insight into how effective these policies are in controlling discretion and changing police behavior, especially when it comes to arrests involving children.
To better understand the effects of law enforcement policies on arrests involving children in Florida, we examined policies from law enforcement agencies throughout Florida. We obtained agency-level policies from 215 Florida law enforcement agencies, serving 95 percent of Florida’s population, as well as reports of arrests for years between 2016 and 2019. We also examined the effects of law enforcement policies on arrests involving children over time.
Current administrative policies in Florida law enforcement agencies may not be effective in reducing arrests involving children
According to a careful analysis of policies from Florida law enforcement agencies, the percentage of counties’ population covered by a law enforcement agency with a policy was not linked to county-level arrests of children aged 12 and younger. This raises the possibility that the administrative measures in place at Florida law enforcement agencies may not be effective in lowering the number of juvenile arrests. Instead of the proposed policies being unsuccessful, this may be caused by the phrasing of the policies themselves. All the available policies relating to the arrest of children allowed for a significant amount of discretion in those decisions. None of the agencies with policies pertaining to the arrest of children specifically forbid the arrest of a younger child. Instead, regulations call for supervisors’ approval or advise officers to avoid making an arrest of children who haven’t committed a felony in favor of trying to divert them from the juvenile court system to community-based programs. It is conceivable that the language of rules is the problem, which could account for the lack of a strong correlation between policies and arrest of young children.
Policies relating to the arrest of children must be clear and prohibitive to be effective in lowering the number of arrests of children. Policies may have been written to accommodate professional commitments and needs as Florida does not have a minimum age for court jurisdiction. Without state legislation, law enforcement agencies may lack the authority to eliminate arrests for younger children.
Less-discretionary policies may be needed to reduce arrest for children
There is evidence that more restrictive rules and regulations limit officers’ discretion and may have a greater impact on how they behave. Agencies should give their officers clear policies that constrain their discretion when dealing with children and instructions that help them decide whether to arrest minors. The Youth Criminal Justice Act of Canada is one example of such a policy (YCJA).
The YCJA gives law enforcement agencies clear and comprehensive instructions on how to arrest children. Officers and prosecutors are instructed under the YCJA to transfer cases from the juvenile court system to community-based initiatives. It also made clear that juvenile courts are not allowed to use adult sentence guidelines. A prior analysis of the YCJA showed that it had significantly reduced the number of juvenile arrests and/or charges. More specifically, the explicit and clear instructions drafted have been connected to its effectiveness.
There are also instances of explicit and clear policies relating to the detention of children within the United States. In 2018, California determined that children under 12 may not be detained or prosecuted for delinquent offenses, with the exception of rape and murder. As a result, California set a minimum age of 12 for its juvenile justice system. This law instructs officers to avoid intervention with young children and adolescents and, if required, to refer them to school-based, community-based, or health-based services.
Although Louisiana has a minimum age requirement for juvenile court jurisdiction, the language used in the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) policy manual is straightforward and removes any room for officers to utilize discretion when dealing with younger children. According to the NOPD policy manual, the juvenile intake unit “will not accept or process ANY child under the age of 10 years charged with ANY felony or misdemeanor offense. Those who have not reached the age of 10 years are exempt from criminal responsibility.” As a result, law enforcement organizations in the United States seeking to enact comparable policies can use this policy as a model.
The most effective method to reduce children’s involvement with the legal system may be to put state legislation into place, especially when local law enforcement authorities might not be able to limit the arrest of kids without state laws. The implementation of specific and comprehensive minimum age policies by local agencies would be advantageous, as would training for law enforcement personnel on how to best address the needs of children they come in contact with.
- This article is based on the paper: ”Structuring Discretion: The Association Between Law Enforcement Policies and Arrests of Children in Florida” in Crime & Delinquency.
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- Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of USAPP – American Politics and Policy, nor the London School of Economics.
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