OP-ED: No Child Younger Than 15 Should Be Prosecuted in Wyoming

  • Published In: Columns
  • Last Updated: Nov 09, 2021

Alyson Clements is director of membership and advocacy for the National Juvenile Justice Network. (Courtesy photo)

By Alyson Clements

Director of membership and advocacy, the National Juvenile Justice Network

Wyoming is currently one of 28 states that has not yet established a minimum age limit for when a child can be prosecuted in court. This means children as young as 8 or 9 could be arrested or given a citation by police and pushed into our complex court systems. As the Wyoming legislature studies the state’s treatment of youth in trouble with the law, it is critical for Wyoming to examine its treatment of very young children and implement barriers to protect them from harmful and unnecessary court interaction.

The majority of children under the age of 15 lack the knowledge, experience and skills to be considered legally competent. In other words, they are unable to meaningfully understand or participate in the court process. Pushing children into the court system when they are too young to fully understand the process, leads to a number of harmful results. It exacerbates youth trauma and creates unintended barriers to what young children need most: support, services and access to treatment.

Wyoming has the opportunity to better serve young children and public safety by reorienting its approach to children to align with brain development. Brain science has shown that a child’s brain is not fully developed until the mid-20s. Most child behaviors that are labeled defiant are, in fact, developmentally normal, meaning they do not warrant police or court intervention. Yet, some children exhibit behaviors as a result of untreated trauma, underscoring the need to respond with trauma-informed supports, not complex court proceedings.

Recognizing that trauma of arrest and legal-system involvement at a very young age exposes children to disruptions in their brain development, family relationships and educational progress, The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Bar Association have both called for a high minimum age of youth prosecution. If Wyoming were to implement a minimum age of prosecution of 14 years old, it would bring the state in alignment with brain science and international standards.

Across the country, youth, families, sheriffs and system stakeholders have expressed support for preventing young children from being detained or confined. Establishing a minimum age of youth prosecution is an easy and logical solution for policymakers and the public. I encourage Wyoming to implement this commonsense approach to allow young children to access services while supported by their families outside of the walls of the court system.

Alyson Clements is director of membership and advocacy for the National Juvenile Justice Network. This Washington, D.C.-based organization works with juvenile justice coalitions and organizations in 44 states, including the Wyoming Children’s Law Center in Laramie, to “press for state and federal laws, policies and practices that are fair, equitable and developmentally appropriate for all children, youth and families involved in, or at risk of becoming involved in, the justice system.”

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