This one is extremely disturbing. An eight-year-old Florida girl was arrested and charged with felonies. She was seen on surveillance footage breaking into cars in Palm Bay. The girl admitted her involvement, telling police that she and two older kids were walking in a park and decided to break into some cars. She was charged with felony burglary to a conveyance and attempted theft.
An arrest of someone so young, seems like an isolated shocking incident. Unfortunately, it’s not. In fiscal year 2014-2015, 80 Florida children under the age of nine were arrested. Two of them were from Miami and four were from Broward County.
Florida has no minimum age for arrest. 2/3’s of all states also have no minimum age for arrest. That means that theoretically, a four-year-old can be arrested for criminal charges. Guess what? It’s not only in theory that a four-year-old can be stripped of his/her liberty. It actually happened in Orange County, Florida. A four-year-old and his partners in crime, ages 6,8,9 and 11, were all arrested and charged with vandalism and burglary to a shed.
Police argue that they have no discretion. They allege that if a felony is committed, they must make an arrest.
I disagree with law enforcement’s assertion that they have to arrest a child whenever they have probable cause that a felony was committed. I am aware of numerous incidents where adult felons are given breaks for various reasons and aren’t arrested in spite of overwhelming evidence of their guilt. Certainly, police can use that same discretion in cases involving young children, when they deem it to be appropriate.
Let’s be real, in most instances, when dealing with a child under 9 years of age, an arrest should be a last resort. Child psychology experts support my strong belief that subjecting a child to the criminal arena at such an early age will actually ensure that they feel greater distrust and fear of authority. Additionally, handcuffing a child only makes them more defiant in the long run. This concept of “Scaring kids straight,” rarely works, experts say. Fear isn’t always the answer.
If police feel they have to make an arrest of a child, so young that they are years away from puberty, then I would hope that prosecutors do the right thing in these cases. At a minimum, I would hope that they decline to take any action that would tarnish these children’s records at such a young age. Children’s brains are still developing. The frontal lobe, the portion that governs reasoning and judgment, hasn’t even fully formed yet. The answer, in most of these cases, is not to persist with criminal prosecution, and, instead, refer the young offenders into programs that involve useful services like family counseling, anger management, and conflict resolution. The goal must be to determine what the cause of the criminal behavior is and commit to providing assistance to the child and/or his family so that he/she can get on the right track before the behavior escalates.