In most U.S. states, children of any age can be processed through the juvenile justice system. This year, proposed legislation in California — a state with no established age minimum — seeks to bring needed protections to children ages 11 and younger by prohibiting their prosecution in juvenile court. If successful, Senate Bill 439 will lessen the harm of unnecessary justice system involvement by allowing young children to receive age-appropriate supports through alternative systems, including schools, community-based health providers and child welfare agencies.
Juvenile justice systems were designed for older adolescents, not children. Subjecting the very young to formal processing undermines the effectiveness of treatment and increases the likelihood that they will return to the justice system. Research shows that justice system contact, particularly at an early age, can have harmful, lifelong impacts. Formal processing, regardless of outcome, can cement a negative self-image and hinder healthy development, increasing a child's likelihood of continued contact with the justice system.