Home Our Work Our Publications Raise the Minimum Age for Trying Children in Juvenile Court

Raise the Minimum Age for Trying Children in Juvenile Court

Two young girls of color walking in a neighborhood. Block text at the bottom that reads,

[Download the PDF]

Given its documented public health harms, court processing and incarceration is a failed approach for all children. For this reason, NJJN continues to recommend that states apply a public health lens to youth and seek to avoid justice system processing. Of particular concern, is that over half the states (28 states) in the U.S. still have no minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction.  This has led to many examples of outrageous treatment of young children, including the arrest of a 6-year-old in Orlando for throwing a temper tantrum in school, the arrest of a 10-year-old in Detroit for throwing a ball at a child’s face during dodgeball, and the arrest of a 7-year-old in Kansas City for refusing to go to the principal’s office.

Children this young should be supported by their families, schools, and holistic resources, not handcuffed and sent to detention or court. They do not have the brain development necessary to understand what is happening in court or be able to participate in their defense in any meaningful way, they are unable to fully grasp what it means to break the law or to fully understand the legal and moral implications of their actions, and they face great risk of being physically harmed and emotionally traumatized by the experience. Younger children are at the greatest risk of being victims of violence when in custody – more than one-quarter of youth under 13 years old were victims of some type of violence while confined, compared to nine percent of 20-year-olds. Furthermore, justice system processing is a treatment that is disproportionately used for children of color, enhancing the racial and ethnic disparities in the youth justice system.

The United States is an outlier throughout the world in the practice of trying young children in court. In 2019, the Committee on the Rights of the Child, which monitors the implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), issued General Comment No. 24 stating that 14 is the most common minimum age of criminal responsibility internationally, and urging nations to set their minimum age of criminal responsibility to at least 14-years- old.[iv] The United Nations Global Study on Children Deprived of Liberty in its 2019 report also called  on countries to set the minimum age of prosecution in juvenile court at 14-years-old. 

It is shocking to the conscience that there are still states in this country that have not set a bare minimum age at which you can try a child in juvenile court. As the United Nations Global Study stated, “depriving children of liberty is depriving them of their childhood.”

Accordingly, NJJN makes the following policy recommendation:

NJJN calls on the states to ensure that all our children have the protection of a reasonable minimum age of prosecution when in conflict with the law, a human right included in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).  The most common minimum age internationally is 14, which is consistent with scientific evidence on brain development and with the minimum age recommended by the CRC.

Full policy platform: Raise the Minimum Age for Trying Children in Juvenile Court

Toolkit: Raising the Minimum Age for Trying Children in Juvenile Court