Juvenile Offenders and Detention

It may be shocking, but children as young as eight years old can be charged with serious crimes such as sexual assault and assault with use of a deadly weapon. The question that is continually plaguing those who work in the juvenile justice arena is what to do with these young offenders when charged with such crimes.

Children who are under the age of 12 are prohibited from being placed in a state correctional facility. However, that law does not extend to the local detention centers. So despite the fact that an 8 year old is still a child in every sense of the word and does not have the mental stability to understand the consequences of the juvenile justice system, they could still be incarcerated at a local detention center.

Advocates that work in this area are working diligently to try and effect change by changing the age in which a child can be charged to a minimum of 11 years old. The average age in most states is 10 years old.

The numbers for children under the age of 11 charged with crimes are not staggering. In 2013, a total of 38 children under the age of 11 had petitions filed against them by the District Attorney’s Office. And of those charged, only 8 were detained. However, when considering the age of these children, putting an 8, 9 or 10 year child in detention seems grossly unjust. And likely, not a very effective deterrent. It seems unrealistic to expect these children to be deterred from similar behavior in the future when they cannot fully grasp or understand the magnitude of their actions, why it was wrong and the full scope of consequences for such action.

One of the primary functions of detention is to ensure the safety of the community. But it begs the question if that goal is really being met by locking up an 8 year old child. One of the programs being offered to certain juvenile offenders in lieu of detention is a program entitled “child in need of supervision” (CHINS). This program is currently offered to juveniles, who, if charged with the same crime as adults, it would not actually be a crime. Think of runaways, truants and curfew violators. CHINS provides that those taken into detention must be released within 24 hours.

While there would still be costs associated with this program, it would be less than what current detention costs, which, is on average, $270.00 per day. The CHINS program allows juvenile offenders to be continually monitored through the probation department. But rather than focusing on punishment, such as detention, the goal of the program is to focus on providing the young offender with the treatment and services he/she needs to rehabilitate. Those who work in juvenile justice day in and day out believe this type of program is a great alternative to detention.  It is the best way to ensure that a young child does not continue a pattern of behavior that will lead to criminal consequences and protects the safety of the community.  A win-win situation for all.