By Dr. Joy Martinez, Staff Writer
The 6-year-old dangled his legs above the floor as he sat at the table with his defense attorney, before a North Carolina judge. Accused of picking a tulip from a yard at his bus stop, the little boy was on trial in juvenile court for injury to real property, according to his attorney Julie Boyer. “He gets served with papers. His mom gets served with papers,” Boyer said. “It was just appalling.”
The boy’s attention span was too short to follow the proceedings, Boyer said, so she handed him crayons and a coloring book. “I asked him to color a picture,” she said, “so he did.”
With an age of 6, North Carolina currently has the lowest allowable age for a child to be declared delinquent, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. What happens to the kindergartner who is arrested and called to court?
The way this young man forever views the court system and life could be changed, according to Psychotherapist and Author Charryse Johnson. “Developmentally, the early experiences of children have lasting impact on how social reward, punishment, and fairness is assimilated. This child is at risk of emotionally and physically fearing that he would not be protected and judged fairly during conflict. This belief would be further crystallized by the trauma of being in proceedings that far exceed his cognition and life experience,” said Johnson.
Attorney, Author and Educator Karima Mariama-Arthur expounds from a legal perspective, “It is asinine to expect this child could appreciate the consequences of his actions, inasmuch as that they might land him squarely within the onerous grips of the criminal justice system. To impute that kind of mens rea on a child of tender years is atrocious. And, to charge him with “injury to real property” (and haul him into court to defend against the outrageous allegation) does violence to both the letter and spirit of the law that exist to guide a trier of fact.”
It happens too often. In fact, Ms. Boyer focuses her practice in the areas of Juvenile Delinquency and Criminal Defense at both the trial and appellate levels. In addition, she handles child custody matters. Unfortunately, she isn’t the only attorney to deal with children’s initial encounter with the law.
Other cases have involved young children who have broken windows at a construction site with older friends and stood on a chair and thrown a pencil at a teacher, attorneys said. Another case involved sexual exploration with another child, attorneys said. One of the state’s youngest clients was a 9-year-old with autism whose response to a teacher resulted in him being found guilty of assault on a government official.
Boyer and others say children that age don’t have the mental capacity to understand the juvenile justice process and its consequences. They can’t make informed decisions, like whether to talk to police and what to tell them, whether to go to trial and whether to admit to the accusations against them, which are called complaints. “He doesn’t understand things in general, and he definitely did not understand everything that was going on with him in the courtroom,” she said.
Washington D.C. Education Specialist Tanya Williams with over 20 years experience working in urban education explains, “Children of color are generally targeted and have more disciplinary actions against them for actions that can be handled on lower levels of intervention, but they deserve the same level of positive behavior intervention and supports as their counterparts. We must question if the consequences would be the same for a white child, and if the answer is no, we have a responsibility to demand answers as to why.”
Despite the obvious disparity across racial and ethnic lines, it is possible that children ages 6 to 9 in trouble with the law in North Carolina could no longer be declared criminally responsible in juvenile court in legislation approved unanimously on Thursday by the state Senate. Senate Bill 207, which now goes to the state’s House, would raise the minimum age for juvenile delinquency from 6 to 10, meaning more young people would be kept out of criminal proceedings in juvenile court.
Legislators and advocates for children and criminal justice reform say children that young lack the mental capacity to understand the process and make informed decisions.
“They believe in the tooth fairy but would” be hard pressed to recognize what is happening to them, said Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican and bill sponsor. Under the bill, juvenile court counselors instead would investigate complaints against children ages 6 to 9 and through consultations determine what kinds of medical or psychiatric assistance they need. Parents of these children could still face consequences from juvenile court if they fail to carry out a counselor’s recommendations. A bipartisan House bill that also would raise the age of juvenile proceedings to age 10 is scheduled to be heard by a committee next week.