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In recent years, the practice of prosecuting teenagers like adults has been coming under increasing scrutiny. What many people don't realize is that while every state has a maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction (usually 18), two-thirds of states don't have a minimum age of jurisdiction. That means that it's legal in 28 states to prosecute children as young as 5 in juvenile court.
Florida is one of those states without a minimum age for juvenile jurisdiction, which can lead to elementary school children being arrested for alleged misdemeanor crimes. This is what happened last week, when an Orlando school resource officer handcuffed and arrested two 6-year-olds in separate incidents at a charter school. Can police really arrest kids at elementary school?
Under Florida law, they can. But as these incidents prove, they shouldn't. Neither police nor school officials have released details of either incident, but one child's grandmother said she was told the child was arrested, charged, and returned to school for allegedly throwing a tantrum. The other child was reportedly booked and had their mugshot taken before the juvenile facility realized the officer hadn't received proper approval to arrest them.
While Florida allows children to be arrested, the arrest of any person under the age of 12 requires the approval of a watch commander, which the officer did not obtain. That failure, in part, led to the officer's suspension, subsequent firing, and an announcement that no charges would be pursued against the children. "I refuse to knowingly play any role in the school-to-prison pipeline," State Attorney Aramis Ayala said. "The criminal process ends here today. The children will not be prosecuted."
The Orlando Chief of Police was equally displeased. "On behalf of the Orlando Police Department, I apologize to the children involved and their families," Chief Orlando Rolón said this week, "I can understand how traumatic this was for everyone involved." Rolón added that he has "taken steps to ensure this does not occur in the future," including issue a department-wide notice and "reminding officers that policy clearly prohibits the arrest of a juvenile without a manager's approval."
Notably, Rolón did not say the practice would be suspended or discontinued. This means that in Orlando and other jurisdictions, arresting decisions will be left up to police officers. Yes, officers like Dennis Turner, the former officer in this case, who was charged with aggravated child abuse in 1998 after officials found welts and bruises on his 7-year-old son. He was also cited or excessive force after tazing a man five times in 2016, twice after the man was unresponsive. Turner was also investigated for assaulting the ex-husband of a woman he was dating.
Arrests of elementary-aged children are rare, and perhaps these could be blamed on one bad apple of a cop. But as long as police can arrest kids, they will. And studies show that a disproportionate number of kids referred to law enforcement and arrested are children of color.