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In many states around the country, there is no minimum age for arrests. Some states do have age limits, but even there, children as young as 7 can be arrested and prosecuted. Now, as NPR's Cheryl Corley reports, there's a growing push to reform the juvenile justice system by raising the minimum age for arrests.
CHERYL CORLEY, BYLINE: It's been a trying time over the last two and a half years for youngster Kaia Rolle. Her grandmother and guardian told NPR the child still goes to therapy and is treated for PTSD. That's because when Kaia was 6 years old, she was arrested at school. She was accused of kicking and punching staff members while throwing a tantrum. The video of her crying and pleading with a police officer not to handcuff her sparked widespread outrage.
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KAIA: (Crying) No. Don't put handcuffs on. No. Don't put handcuffs on.
CORLEY: A school resource officer used zip-ties for the handcuffs. During an interview with WMFE in Orlando, Kaia's grandmother, Meralyn Kirkland, was incredulous.
MERALYN KIRKLAND: A 6-year-old throwing a tantrum is a 6-year-old. Whether somebody accidentally gets hit or not, it's a tantrum. There should not be any law in the book that allows a child to be arrested for being a child.
MO CANADY: It should be the rarest of circumstances that that would occur - almost never.
CORLEY: Mo Canady, a former police officer, is executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers. The group's training teaches police officers about de-escalation, adolescent brain development and working with students with special needs.
CANADY: And so when, you know, I see the image of a 5- or 6-year-old child handcuffed and law enforcement is involved, whether it's an SRO or not, yeah, that does make me cringe.
CORLEY: Authorities dropped the battery charge the first-grader faced. The police officer was fired.
At the time, Florida had no minimum age for arrest. That changed last year. Lawmakers passed the Kaia Rolle Act. It bans the arrest of anyone under the age of 7 - not exactly what supporters originally wanted.
Alyson Clements with the National Juvenile Justice Network says because juvenile justice is handled state by state, there's a patchwork approach in the country to children who come into contact with the law.
ALYSON CLEMENTS: So when we look at the minimum age of prosecution across the country, half have no minimum age of youth court jurisdiction or minimum age of prosecution. And those that do have a minimum age, to your point, it's all over the map.
CORLEY: That age ranges from 7 to 13. Until recently, the lowest age had been 6. However, last year, lawmakers in North Carolina raised the 6-year-old minimum there to 10 years old in most instances. State Representative Marcia Morey was a juvenile court judge for nearly two decades. She says 6- to 9-year-olds needed out of the system.
MARCIA MOREY: These kids are too young to have any concept of what's going on in a courtroom. Plus, the fact to label them delinquent has a profound effect on their psyche, on, you know, who they are. And so I thought it was an important bill. We passed it. We didn't do a good enough job because we can still put 8- and 9-year-olds into the delinquency system for more serious felonies.
CORLEY: This year, Colorado is 1 of 5 states considering raising its minimum age. It would increase from 10 years old to 13.
Phillip Roybal says he supports the measure. He's a youth justice advocate at a Denver nonprofit. In his 30s now, Roybal spent years in the juvenile justice system. He was first arrested at school when he was 12. He and some other kids stole baseball cards they thought were lucrative.
PHILLIP ROYBAL: School resource officers weren't a thing. It was just local police department that got called and pulled me out of class and arrested me right then and there, which in itself was kind of like a walk of shame a little bit, you know? You're 12 years old. You're in the eighth grade. Getting walked down the hall in handcuffs - it's kind of dehumanizing.
CORLEY: It's trauma, he says, that can create a whirlwind of long-term negatives for a child. It may also lead some to more criminal activity.
ROYBAL: That's exactly what happened to me - exactly what happened to me. So from 1998 to 2010, I was involved with the justice system in one shape or form - probation, parole, county jail or prison.
CORLEY: And he says his strong family helped him turn his life around.
ROYBAL: So I had a very, very good support system. A lot of our youth don't have that.
CORLEY: State analysts say about 500 kids between the ages of 10 and 12 enter Colorado's criminal justice system every year. Attorney Michael Dougherty, the head of the Colorado District Attorney's Council, says he supports reducing the number of children in juvenile court, but he and the other prosecutors don't support the current bill, which calls for increasing the age boundary. Dougherty says his office has a robust diversion program that provides medical treatment and counseling for young people and their families. He says that has kept hundreds of kids out of juvenile court. He also says 10-, 11- and 12-year-old children no longer in the system would lose access to services ordered by the courts, and so would victims.
MICHAEL DOUGHERTY: So for example, if a 12-year-old rapes a 10-year-old girl living in the house next door, I really believe our society owes it to her and her family to respond and support her. And we should also have a system in place to help the 12-year-old who committed the sex assault in order to ensure that he's provided the structure and support that he needs.
SERENA GONZALES-GUTIERREZ: I think that if they are providing such robust, diversion-type programs, then why can't those be provided without the criminalization of children?
CORLEY: That's Colorado state Representative Serena Gonzales-Gutierrez, who introduced the legislation to raise the minimum age limit. She says the bill, now in committee, includes changes that set up a task force to identify support services and funding. Juvenile justice advocates say that's what's needed throughout the country when it comes to rehabilitating youth who get into trouble, plus a continued effort to push the minimum age for prosecuting juveniles even higher. They want to match the 14-year-old age limit that's most commonly used internationally.
Cheryl Corley, NPR News, Chicago.
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