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Lawmakers propose 14 as minimum age for juvenile delinquency

Younger wrongdoers need rehabilitative services — not a criminal record, legislators say


By Dana DiFilippo - June 12, 2023

Several Democratic legislators have introduced legislation to set 14 as the minimum age that children can be held criminally responsible for their actions. (Hal Brown for New Jersey Monitor)


Calvin Bass was just 14 when he went to prison for murder. He knows well that prison is no place for a child — unless the goal is to ruin the child.

“A lot of times it’s counterproductive. It doesn’t so much become a deterrence. It becomes an encouragement,” said Bass, who served 38 years behind bars before getting released in 2021. “As they say, association brings upon assimilation.”

Yet New Jersey is one of 24 states that sets no minimum age for children to be criminally arrested, prosecuted, and punished for their wrongdoing.

Several state lawmakers now want to change that by setting 14 as the minimum age for criminal culpability.

“We’re putting kids who are likely not beyond rehabilitation into a situation where we’re turning them into hardened criminals,” Assemblyman Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) said. “The science surrounding brain development doesn’t support putting kids in juvenile detention when they’re too young.”

Mukherji and Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington) introduced a bill in February to establish 12 as the minimum age for juvenile delinquency in New Jersey.

During a legislative hearing in Trenton last month, the Assembly’s judiciary committee unanimously agreed to boost the age to 14 and advance the bill. Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) recently introduced a Senate version of the bill, and it’s now waiting to be heard before that chamber’s law and public safety committee.

If it passes, New Jersey would be the only U.S. state to follow the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’s 2019 recommendation, which called for all countries to set a minimum age of criminal responsibility at 14 years old, without exception.

While 26 U.S. states have set a minimum age, they have drawn the line at younger ages — at age 13 in Maryland and New Hampshire; 12 in five states, including New York and Delaware; 11 in Nebraska; 10 in 16 states, including Pennsylvania; and 8 in Washington, according to the National Juvenile Justice Network.

Even Florida’s famously conservative lawmakers set a minimum age of 7 for juvenile delinquency after police there sparked widespread outrage in 2019 when they arrested and zip-tied a 6-year-old who threw a tantrum in school. Kids of color disproportionately impacted Laura Cohen is a law professor and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School.

While the youngest child now in state custody is 14, Cohen said police around New Jersey have arrested hundreds of children younger than that — 65 children age 9 or younger and another 642 between the ages of 10 and 12 in 2019, according to FBI crime report data. Most of such arrests stem from outsized responses to “what is often normative childhood behavior” such as playground fights, she said.

They more often happen in urban districts and schools staffed by police, feeding the “cradle-to-prison pipeline” that disproportionately impacts children of color in a state already grappling with the worst racial disparities in prisons nationally, she added.

“It is the multiple harms of arrest that really are of concern,” Cohen said. “This is the beginning of racial disparities. In communities that are overpoliced, very young children are arrested, they can be fingerprinted, they can be photographed, they can be referred to court, and even if ultimately formal charges aren’t filed against them, the harms of arrest are numerous, and they then have amplified effects over the course of a child’s life.”

Those harms include higher rates of depression and anxiety and a loss of educational opportunities, said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who now heads the New Jersey Reentry Corporation.

McGreevey testified in support of the bill before the Assembly committee last month, along with other advocates, including Bass, Cohen, and Racquel Romans-Henry of Salvation and Social Justice.


Setting a minimum age for criminal responsibility will help many children, especially those of color, escape the stranglehold of the criminal justice system, Romans-Henry told legislators.


“In a state where Black babies are three times more likely to die than white babies before their first birthday and are then forced into the most segregated schools in the nation, adopting legislation that establishes a minimum age of which a child can be placed in handcuffs and prosecuted is not just merely a matter of preserving the humanity of these children, it’s a matter of good common sense,” Romans-Henry said.


Melissa Goemann is senior policy counsel at the National Juvenile Justice Network. Advocates there are working to establish age minimums for criminal culpability in states without them — or raise them in states where officials have set the bar under 14, which is the most common minimum age internationally.


Many children who end up in the court system have committed minor offenses that can be better handled by a discussion with the parents, Goemann said. Those accused of “more concerning” offenses would be best served by getting mental health treatment, child welfare intervention, or other community-based services tailored to whatever problem spurred their wrongdoing, she added.


“In every state, there are other options for addressing a child’s needs and providing services that are outside of the justice system, which saddles the child with a record that’s going to follow them and possible traumatic experiences if they’re incarcerated,” she said.

If the bill in New Jersey becomes law, Goemann said, “it would be a wonderful win for the kids.”

“The U.S. is out of step with the rest of the world on this,” she said. “These are little kids, and it’s inappropriate and harmful to them to put them through the juvenile justice system.”


Setting a minimum age for criminal responsibility will help many children, especially those of color, escape the stranglehold of the criminal justice system, Romans-Henry told legislators.

“In a state where Black babies are three times more likely to die than white babies before their first birthday and are then forced into the most segregated schools in the nation, adopting legislation that establishes a minimum age of which a child can be placed in handcuffs and prosecuted is not just merely a matter of preserving the humanity of these children, it’s a matter of good common sense,” Romans-Henry said.


Melissa Goemann is senior policy counsel at the National Juvenile Justice Network. Advocates there are working to establish age minimums for criminal culpability in states without them — or raise them in states where officials have set the bar under 14, which is the most common minimum age internationally.


Many children who end up in the court system have committed minor offenses that can be better handled by a discussion with the parents, Goemann said. Those accused of “more concerning” offenses would be best served by getting mental health treatment, child welfare intervention, or other community-based services tailored to whatever problem spurred their wrongdoing, she added.


“In every state, there are other options for addressing a child’s needs and providing services that are outside of the justice system, which saddles the child with a record that’s going to follow them and possible traumatic experiences if they’re incarcerated,” she said.

If the bill in New Jersey becomes law, Goemann said, “it would be a wonderful win for the kids.”


“The U.S. is out of step with the rest of the world on this,” she said. “These are little kids, and it’s inappropriate and harmful to them to put them through the juvenile justice system.”


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