“Let’s not forget they’re children” — lawmaker pushes for minimum arrest age when it comes to kids

Playground opening at Florida elementary school in Volusia County, Florida. Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images.

When two 6-year-old first graders at an Orlando charter school were handcuffed and arrested in September, state senator Randolph Bracy knew something wasn’t right and something had to be done.

“It’s just not appropriate to arrest a 6-year-old,” Bracy said in an interview with the Florida Phoenix.

“Their minds are not developed enough to realize the consequences of any action. Let’s not forget they’re children. I think we need to put some guard rails in place so that we don’t begin to criminalize normal childhood behavior.”

Bracy, an Orange County Democrat, has filed legislation (SB 578) to bring Florida in line with other states, such as Texas, Louisiana and California, that have established a minimum age for an arrest.

Bracy also said the Orlando incident underscored the fact that state law, without a minimum arrest age, could lead to the arrests of more children.

“You would think it would be common knowledge to not arrest a 6-year-old. But it’s not,” Bracy said. “I think that we need to look at this issue and put something in place so that something like this doesn’t happen because the child has gone through a traumatic period after being arrested.”

Orlando Democratic Rep. Anna Eskamani filed a similar bill (HB 949) in the House last week.

“Florida needs a statutory minimum age to arrest juveniles,” Eskamani said. “We are proud to file the House companion to Sen. Bracy’s legislation and know that if such a bill were to pass and become law, it would be transformational for all children in our state.”

Twenty-two states have a minimum arrest age, ranging from 12 years in California and Massachusetts to 6 years in North Carolina, according to the National Juvenile Defender Center, a non-partisan research group. A dozen states set the age at 10 years.

But Florida is one of 28 states without a minimum arrest age.

“There is no statute specifying any minimum age for arrest, which means there’s nothing legally preventing the arrest of even a 3-year-old,” said State Attorney Aramis Ayala, who appeared with Bracy at an Oct. 30 press conference in Orlando.

“And while that may seem unlikely to ever happen, the statutory void is problematic because it is inconsistent with both scientific research and case law,” said Ayala, who is the chief state prosecutor in Orange and Osceola counties.

The legislation comes as the result of the arrests of Kaia Rolle and an unidentified 6-year-old boy, for a separate incident, at the Lucious & Emma Nixon Academy in Orlando on Sept. 19.

Kaia was charged with battery for kicking and hitting school employees during a tantrum, according to police.

But the arrests were quickly condemned by police administrators and the arresting officer, Dennis Turner, was fired. Ayala, the prosecutor, dropped all charges against the children.

Ayala said the bills setting a minimum arrest age, which will be considered by state lawmakers when they start their annual session next month, will help prevent similar incidents from occurring.

“I support this kind of legislation because it protects children from state-initiated trauma in the very formative years of their lives,” Ayala said. “When children are arrested, their lives are forever changed. And we have to admit that it may not be worth a psychological scarring for very young children that could have been managed with common sense.”

In 2018-19, the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice reported that of the 54,768 juvenile arrests in the state, 5 percent of those involved children who were 12 or younger.

The data also showed a disproportionate number of black children arrested compared to white and Hispanic counterparts.

Some 50 percent of the juvenile arrests in 2018-19 were African-American children, although they only represent 21 percent of the population between 10 and 17 years old in Florida, the state data shows.

A recent report from the U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights shows that during the 2015-16 school year, 31 percent of the students referred to law enforcement or who were subject to school-related arrests were black. But African-Americans only represent 15 percent of the total national student enrollment.

Disabled students also were disproportionately arrested, the federal report shows. In 2015-16, 28 percent of those students were arrested or referred, while representing 12 percent of the enrollment.

Under Bracy’s bill, although juvenile arrests would be prohibited for children under 12, there would be exceptions. A juvenile could be arrested to “prevent an imminent threat of serious bodily harm to another individual” or if the juvenile fails to appear at a mandated court hearing, the bill says.

“This doesn’t preclude law enforcement from arresting a kid who commits a serious crime and the bill states that,” Bracy told the Florida Phoenix.

The legislation also adds restrictions to the arrest of juveniles between the ages of 12 and 14, with Bracy saying the intent is to try to shift those children to alternative programs rather than the criminal justice system.

Meralyn Kirkland, who is Kaia Rolle’s grandmother, also appeared with Bracy at the Oct. 30 press conference, to support the legislation.

Kirkland said when she found out her granddaughter had been arrested at school, she was angry and upset.

“Then I became outraged that this would happen not just to my 6-year-old granddaughter, but to any 6-year-old child,” Kirkland said.

“I may not be able to change things for Kaia at this point, but if I can prevent even one other child or family from experiencing this, then it would not be a totally bad thing that happened,” she said.