Florida exemplifies the consequences of lacking a minimum age statute, which can unnecessarily ensnare young children in the criminal justice system. Unlike some other states, Florida does not have a federally mandated minimum age of court jurisdiction, and this absence of a policy is detrimental. Vitoria De Francisco Lopes conducted a study analyzing over 200 Florida law enforcement agencies' policies on arresting children and found them ineffective in reducing juvenile arrests. By examining practices from various US states and Canada, Lopes argues that implementing explicit and unambiguous instructions and policies can help minimize children's involvement with the Florida legal system.
In the United States, over 60,000 children aged 12 and under were arrested or referred to the juvenile justice system in 2019. Despite efforts from lawmakers and scholars to safeguard young children from the adverse effects of the justice system, minimum age statutes have been largely overlooked. This holds true for Florida, where the absence of a minimum age statute has placed the responsibility on local-level agencies to guide officers on interacting with young children and adolescents.
The minimum age of court jurisdiction refers to the youngest age at which a child can be held criminally responsible for an offense. Advocates for establishing minimum age of court jurisdiction statutes have raised several concerns regarding young children's involvement in the justice system. Some of these concerns include children's limited capacity to stand trial, the potential for increased criminality throughout their lives due to formal involvement, and the notion that delinquency can be better addressed outside the justice system.
Although the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has recommended setting the minimum age of court jurisdiction at 14, the United States has not established a national minimum age. While 21 states have implemented minimum age policies ranging from 6 to 12, states like Florida, without a minimum age statute, often rely on varying approaches primarily based on officer discretion.
Law enforcement officials hold a unique position in the juvenile justice process due to their discretionary power. To control this discretion, policies, procedures, and rules have been implemented. Policymakers and law enforcement administrators believe that agency-level policies and regulations are effective in governing police discretion. However, existing research offers limited insight into the effectiveness of these policies in controlling discretion and modifying police behavior, particularly regarding arrests involving children.
To gain a better understanding of how law enforcement policies impact arrests involving children in Florida, we examined the policies of law enforcement agencies across the state. We collected agency-level policies from 215 Florida law enforcement agencies, which collectively serve 95 percent of the state's population. Additionally, we analyzed arrest reports from the years 2016 to 2019 to study the effects of law enforcement policies on arrests involving children over time.
Our analysis of policies from Florida law enforcement agencies indicates that the percentage of a county's population covered by agencies with policies does not correlate with county-level arrests of children aged 12 and younger. This suggests that the current administrative measures in place may not effectively reduce the number of juvenile arrests. Rather than attributing this lack of effectiveness to the policies themselves, it is possible that the phrasing of the policies is the issue. All available policies related to the arrest of children allow significant discretion in decision-making. None of the agencies with policies specifically prohibit the arrest of younger children. Instead, the regulations call for supervisor approval or advise officers to refrain from arresting children who haven't committed a felony and instead attempt to divert them to community-based programs. The language used in the rules may be problematic, explaining the weak correlation between policies and the arrest of young children.
For policies concerning the arrest of children to be effective in reducing arrests, they must be explicit and prohibitive. Policies may have been formulated to accommodate professional commitments and needs, given the absence of a minimum age for court jurisdiction in Florida. Without state legislation, law enforcement agencies may lack the authority to eliminate arrests of younger children.
To reduce arrests of children, less discretionary policies may be necessary. Evidence suggests that more restrictive rules and regulations can limit officers' discretion and have a greater impact on their behavior. Agencies should provide their officers with clear policies that restrict discretion when dealing with children and provide guidelines for deciding whether to arrest minors. The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) in Canada serves as an example of such a policy.
The YCJA offers law enforcement agencies clear and comprehensive instructions on how to handle the arrest of children. Officers and prosecutors are directed under the YCJA to transfer cases from the juvenile court system to community-based initiatives. It explicitly prohibits the use of adult sentence guidelines in juvenile courts. Previous analysis of the YCJA has shown a significant reduction in the number of juvenile arrests and charges. The explicit and clear instructions outlined in the policy are credited with its effectiveness.
Explicit and clear policies regarding the detention of children also exist within the United States. In 2018, California enacted a law stating that children under 12 cannot be detained or prosecuted for delinquent offenses, except in cases of rape and murder. Consequently, California established a minimum age of 12 for its juvenile justice system. This law instructs officers to avoid intervening with young children and adolescents and, if necessary, refer them to school-based, community-based, or health-based services.
Although Louisiana has a minimum age requirement for juvenile court jurisdiction, the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) policy manual leaves no room for officer discretion when dealing with younger children. According to the NOPD policy manual, the juvenile intake unit "will not accept or process ANY child under the age of 10 years charged with ANY felony or misdemeanor offense. Those who have not reached the age of 10 years are exempt from criminal responsibility." Law enforcement organizations in the United States seeking to implement similar policies can use this policy as a model.
The most effective approach to reduce children's involvement with the legal system may involve enacting state legislation, particularly when local law enforcement authorities may not have the power to restrict the arrest of children without state laws. Implementing specific and comprehensive minimum age policies by local agencies would be beneficial, as would providing training for law enforcement personnel on how best to address the needs of the children they encounter.