Kids aren’t miniature adults. We don’t expect our little leaguers to play baseball as well as Major Leaguers. We don’t expect a third grader to read or solve math problems as well as a high schooler. So why would we expect a young child who has engaged in bad behavior – even very bad behavior – to have the same reasoning skills, same intent, and same ability to understand complex court processes and legal consequences as a teenager or adult?
We wanted to better understand how Nebraska responds to very young kids acting out, what the data shows, and what is happening in other states. What we found is that elementary age children are brought into contact with the juvenile justice system in our state more frequently than one might expect.
Read the full report here: Kindergarten Court
Last week we provided copies of the report to the Legislative Judiciary Committee in support of LB 893, which would realign our system response when very young children have acted out. Instead of facing trial on delinquency charges, the bill would permit a special type of filing that would involve the whole family and achieve necessary interventions through the Department of Health and Human Services rather than Probation.
Setting a minimum age for delinquency charging acknowledges that very young children lack the same reasoning and comprehension abilities as older youth and adults. When a nine-year-old acts out, he may know it is “bad,” but not fully understand why he is doing it, much less what the possible consequences and complicated legal ramifications might be.
Outcomes are improved and the community is safer when our system functions to wrap the correct services and supports around a child and family. When a very young child has acted out, he may need interventions, but the juvenile justice system is not necessarily best suited to the task.