Criminal Justice

Outrage Over Handcuffed Children Leads States To Consider Raising Minimum Age of Arrest

In 28 states, there's no minimum age for arresting kids.


A 6-year-old boy charged with a crime for picking a tulip. An 8-year-old whose wrists were too small for a pair of handcuffs. A 9-year-old girl handcuffed and pepper sprayed in the back of a police cruiser.

News stories and viral videos of small children being arrested and physically restrained have illustrated a disturbing fact about the American criminal justice system: In most states there's no limit on when a small child can be considered a criminal. Now legislators around the country are pushing bills to raise the minimum age at which kids can be arrested.

Lawmakers in Colorado, Florida, Kentucky, Maryland, New York, and North Carolina have all introduced bills to restrict the arrests of small children, ban their handcuffing, and otherwise reduce interactions between kids and the criminal justice system. Mississippi enacted a law earlier this month raising the minimum age for juvenile detention from 10 to 12.

In North Carolina, an investigation by the Raleigh News and Observer revealed this month that children as young as 6—too young to comprehend what was happening in the courtroom—had been charged with crimes. The story's lead anecdote involved a six-year-old boy charged with destruction of property for picking a tulip. 

The News and Observer reports:

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 Mitchell'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.

A North Carolina mother filed a civil rights lawsuit last October against a policeman who handcuffed and held her autistic 7-year-old son prone on the ground for nearly 40 minutes. 

Twenty-eight states have no minimum age for juvenile delinquency, while others set the bar low. North Carolina's, for instance, is at age 6. TechDirt reports that North Carolina's Juvenile Justice Division supports legislation that would raise the minimum age for criminal prosecution to 10.

In New York, where the minimum age of arrest and prosecution of children as juvenile delinquents is 7, public defender groups have sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo and party leaders pushing for passage of legislation to hike the age to 12. The push follows the release of body camera footage showing police in Rochester, New York, pepper spraying a handcuffed 9-year-old girl

A bill introduced in the New York Senate would also prohibit sending kids under 13 to juvenile detention.

In Maryland, state lawmakers are considering legislation that would divert children younger than 13 who commit nonviolent misdemeanors away from the criminal justice system. And legislators in Kentucky have introduced a bill that would ban kids 12 and younger from being tried before a judge.

Meanwhile in Florida, legislators are trying once again to raise the minimum age of arrest, after similar bills failed last year. The Sunshine State has been the site of several viral stories of small children being arrested. Last August, body camera footage emerged showing officers in Key West trying and failing to handcuff an 8-year-old boy, whose wrists were too small for the cuffs. An Orlando school cop made national headlines in 2019 when he arrested a 6-year-old girl.

A bill introduced by Democratic state Sen. Randolph Bracy would forbid arrests of children under age 7, except in cases involving a forcible felony. That bill passed out of a committee this month, following testimony by Meralyn Kirkland, the grandmother of the 6-year-old Orlando girl.

"Little babies have been arrested," Kirkland said. "She was not comforted. She was not consoled. She was not spoken to. Instead of hugs and expressions of love, she received pain, confusion, the absolute terror of being yanked away from people she knew, the school administrator. She had no family members, no parents, guardians."

The youngest juvenile arrests in Florida in fiscal year 2019–2020 were a 5-year-old boy charged with felony vandalism and a 6-year-old girl charged with misdemeanor assault, according to data from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

Reason reported last year on concerns from parents and civil liberties groups over the significant increase in the number of school resource officers in Florida, where the legislature reacting to the mass shooting in Parkland by requiring an armed officer or guard in every K-12 school in the state. Civil liberties groups say juvenile arrests and restraints disproportionately impact minority youth and children with disabilities.

Those fears were backed up by a study published last September that found the number of school arrests in Florida—which had been declining for years—suddenly started to rise after the passage of the law. There was also a sharp increase in the use of physical restraint against students. 

Lawmakers in Colorado have introduced a bill that would ban the handcuffing of elementary school students, along with measures to reduce school suspensions and raise the hiring standards for school resource officers.

"I am so glad to see this bill come to reality because growing up I saw the way the school-to-prison pipeline affected my siblings," said Natalie Perez of Stand With Children, an advocacy group that supports the legislation. "I knew if my brothers would of had the education they deserved their lives would have been completely different."

Earlier this month in Colorado, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the Douglas County School District and the Douglas County Sheriff's Office for allegedly handcuffing an 11-year-old boy with autism and leaving him in the back of a police cruiser for two hours while he banged his head.

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  1. It would help if the government did not consider parenting as “child abuse”.

    1. It would also help if teachers had some access to discipline, as well.

      Some of these arrests were from children acting out in school and the school wasn’t allowed to touch the child.

      1. I wonder what would happen if Reason required at least a show of journalistic intent. Assembling a list of anecdotal excesses over the course of a decade is not journalism. Besides the intended ‘popo is a big meanie’ angle, a discussion of the actual problem educators and a community can have with violent child offenders when their administrative powers have been stripped of everything except the legal and financial liability for dealing with the situation would have been appropriate.

        It isn’t a small number of children who have severe mental defects, emotional issues, examples of violence at home to mimic, or are psychopaths in the making. The presumption that a 7 year old can’t severely hurt an adult, let alone a child their age or younger… or themselves is absurd, and the presumption that there is always a better way for adults to restrain an out of control child without the actual use of restraints is equally absurd.

        There are and will always be cases of abuse of restraints but these need to be dealt with on a case by case basis, not creating general rules that prevent stopping Boris The Biter from severing a radial nerve with his incisors, or safely getting the young psychopath to a facility that is qualified to deal with him. In most cases, the lesson that there are hard consequences for your special kind of shit is better learned younger than older.

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  2. What is a child?

    If we mean an individual that is not personally liable, and without legal responsibility or autonomy, and deserving of protection from others, then we’d better raise the age limit for handcuffs to at least 30.

    1. According to SCIENCE the human brain isn’t fully developed until age 30, so you’re right. Everyone is a child before they are 30

  3. A 6-year-old boy charged with a crime for picking a tulip. An 8-year-old whose wrists were too small for a pair of handcuffs. A 9-year-old girl handcuffed and pepper sprayed in the back of a police cruiser.

    Welcome to your first civics course.

  4. “…a 5-year-old boy charged with felony vandalism…”

    How much damage could a 5-year-old child do that would constitute a felony?

    1. Said the guy with no kids.

    2. Come on, he deserves an honest answer.

      Fire is the most common way to get completely out of control. A kid playing with matches or fireworks can do millions in property damage.

      Alternatively, deliberately knocking things over in art museums, china shops, or even grocery stores can rack up huge damages very quickly.

    3. A 5 year old kid broke the basement window of a house, inserted the garden hose, and turned on the faucet. He got his start by doing this to people’s cars several times. His Mom and Dad thought it was funny, until they were sued for the price of a flooded basement.

      1. And that’s the right remedy – parents sued for the cost of the child’s misbehavior. Eventually they’ll get tired of paying the bills and will learn to parent.

        Arresting the kid on the other hand would not have helped the situation. In particular, it would not have made the victims whole.

      2. No one sued them over the cars?

        1. Most cars aren’t worth a lawyer’s retainer.

      3. I don’t think that a 5 year old kid should be arrested, but he does need some severe parental discipline for causing damage to a neighbor’s basement by breaking the basement window of a house, inserted the garden hose, and turned on the faucet, thus resulting in his parents getting sued for the price of a flooded basement.

        The kid is way too young to be arrested by the police. He needs to be told precisely why this is unacceptable behavior, and disciplined, as needed, by his parents, not by the police or anybody like that.

    4. Our neighbor’s daughter temporarily nannied for a NFL player who had a 5 yr old boy [big as a 7 yr old] and an infant daughter. She was told her primary job was to stop the boy from killing the girl, which he tried on several occasions… throwing her down the stairs and nearly taking a frying pan to her skull. Nanny quit when he bit the tip off her finger.

      A 5 yr old can bite the hell out of your hand, severing nerves or tendons. A 5 yr old can learn sociopathic violence from a parent and inflict this on anyone his age or younger. The only limits to what a 5 yr old can do relate to his ability to lift and reach/climb. Otherwise, they are as capable of committing violence or property damage as adults.

      1. If kids that age are inflicting such horrific damage to people and/or to property, it’s obviously because the parents are doing little, if anything, to discipline their kids before they really get out of control and cause that kind of damage to people and/or property.

    5. have you watched young childre lately?

  5. While the article has a point, there is a strong counterpoint. WHAT CAN WE DO? There are times that force is necessary to restrain violent outbursts that are completely out of control. The girl who was handcuffed in the police cruiser had been actively attacking and fighting the officers. They put her there to cool down. You are forcing them into a situation where they have no options other than asking nicely while letting them be a danger to themselves and others.

    Police are by definition called into a situation that is downgraded and routinely out of control by the time they arrive. You cannot tell someone to bring order to a situation and then criticize them for every possible action that they can take.

    Yes, police often resort to force too quickly, but you can’t just say “An eight year old was arrested, how barbaric”, which is what the author resorts to.

    1. Restraint =/= arrest. Sitting on someone until they stop fighting is very different from filing criminal charges (or even threatening to file charges).

      Consider a patient having a seizure at the hospital. The doctors and nurses may tie you to the bed so you don’t hurt yourself. They may even chemically paralyze you. But they haven’t arrested you. Police may restrain a violent child without being intentionally stupid about it.

      Note that some of the other examples in the article above had nothing to do with violence. Even restraint was unnecessary.

      To your broader point that “Police are by definition called into a situation that is downgraded and routinely out of control”, first that’s only sometimes true and in any case, it is never an excuse for the police to make the situation worse. Yes, we do have a right to criticize police when their actions are incompetent or counter-productive. If they don’t like it, go sell shoes.

      1. “If they don’t like it, go sell shoes.”

        Sorry, most of the ones who really need to follow that kind of advice, shouldn’t be in any job where they have to deal with the public.

      2. sometimes true? i see it more and more kids at a young age out of control and you as a parent cannot even speak firmly to them without bringing out the folks who call you mean. when i grew up i was spanked and punished…and i grew up just fine

      3. Rossami, I am talking about legitimate police calls, and I agree that they do quite often go overboard. However, the problem with articles like this is that they criticize the officers for handcuffing kids, pepper spraying kids, putting them in squad cars, and definitely for tasing or bludgeoning them. Even raised voices raise consternation.

        That’s the issue I have. There are a number of situations where children must be restrained or brought into control, and we cannot clutch our pearls in shock when police use anything stronger than a pretty please.

        1. +1 sugar on top

  6. Didn’t this evil practice end on Inauguration Day though?

    1. And just like that there was no need for riots because popo stopped hunting black children. And the kingdom united and there were unicorns everywhere. Iz like majic.

  7. My wife just left teaching special education after 30 years. She had two kids that would strip naked, urinate on the rug, dig feces from their asses and smear it on walls, floors, etc. The kids would say things like, “I’m going to kill your family”, “I’m going to kill you”, I will cut your “f”ing throat”. These kids are brothers. One kid was 5, the other was 7. There is hours and hours of video of these kids acting out, it doesn’t matter. Teachers are leaving, no replacements are available. Now, the Principal of the school has to sit in that room all day and get feces and urine thrown on her. The way the system is set up, there is no way to get rid of the psychotic kids. The parents don’t care at all, nor are they blamed for “raising” these two little psychos via the internet. No other special needs kids are being cared for because all resources go to these two psychos. The Principal will sit in that room getting hit, threatened, and having feces and urine thrown on her until the end of the year. There are alternative schools, but the process takes months and months.
    Sometimes, you just have to say, “Mom and Dad, you are on your own”.

    1. And you think throwing an armed law enforcement officer into that situation will improve anything?

      1. When the ill-raised little loonies run off, exit the building and take off running down the street, would you have my wife chase after them? She didn’t sign on for that. She can’t restrain them, rules are rules. It was very nice of the school resource officer to handle that part. If the parents won’t raise their kids then they had very well get ready for contact with police regularly.
        As for cops in schools, I was asked to do a security/threat assessment of a local high school after one of the school shootings. The state required all schools to have threat assessments done, they left the task to untrained staff. I helped complete the assessment. The school had 114 entrance and exit doors. Mostly glass. There is absolutely no way to secure that school against a shooter. Period. The only way to stop a shooter would be a man with a gun. If you have a solution, I’m all ears.
        As a graduate of Chicago Public schools in the fabulous Chicago ghetto, I can tell you that without the cops in schools, the vicious denizens of the ghetto would shoot, stab, and batter people at will. The good kids would be victimized, the gang bangers, male and female, would spend their day beating teachers, students, and staff. In the ghetto, the crotch droppings are trained from birth to hate smart people. They attack them viciously because they are achieving. The smart kids in my classes always had razor scars. In my experience, having cops roaming the halls was a good thing so my views may be biased.

        1. In my opinion it can be attributed to two things. One back in the 80s and 90s they started mainstreaming kids that would have been separated from the rest of the students. Remember the documentary Educating Peter, where they dismissed the fact the teacher had to spend an exorbitant amount of time with him and ignoring the class, but they all learned a life lesson though. I would love to see a documentary that catches up with the students a few years later to see how far they ended up behind the other classrooms.
          The other one, and this is by far the biggest problem is the tendencies to build these massive mega schools. My senior class was around 700 students back in the 80s that was considered a large senior class. Now that would be small compared to some that are coming out today. When you have that many of anybody crammed in together you are going to have serious issues. I noticed they don’t do this with the elementary schools, they are small and close to the student’s homes. If they did the same all the way through to graduation, where schools are small enough that the students and parents all know each other it would make a big difference. Then the job of disciplining the children would be a community issue and not a school or law enforcement issue. This is why you don’t see these types of things happening in small towns. Everybody knows each other and who the problem kids are and who the parents are. When you are one among thousands you can get away with it.

        2. That’s a whole other matter, because once kids get into puberty and older, they’re not little kids anymore. From puberty on, the police have to be called to the scene.

      2. Yes. Because all other alternatives have been taken away by politicians and people crying, “but they are babies”. When you have situations like this, the police are the best equipped to respond in limited capacity. After a few incidents, they are the most likely to get county mental health involved and prevent the little munchkins from hurting other kids and school staff. Psychopaths CAN be taught that there are consequences to actions and people will not tolerate their special kind of shit [literal or figurative].

        In the end, it can also save the problem kid. Perhaps a teacher or school administrator falsely believes that dealing with this kind of behavior falls within the scope of their job or at least that they must just suck it up, so they get away with it. That really isn’t how it works in the real world and it’s best to learn this younger than older. Once you’re a big boy, unchecked abusive behavior often leads to an autopsy table and/or a supermax.

        1. I would say a supermax and/or an autopsy table.

    2. Sounds like they need to go to an institution.

    3. thank your wife for me for trying. you are 100% correct,

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