Sunday, October 2, 2016
The Age of the Child
(Yale Law School)
Recently I had the opportunity to spend time with a group of wonderful clinical law professors who were visiting New Haven, Connecticut from Israel. I took several of them to the local juvenile delinquency court for the morning session, and they had the opportunity to observe a few hearings, talk with two of the court’s judges, and ask lots of questions (in addition to seeing how quickly the landscape changes just half a mile from Yale’s campus).
Having moved here for the academic year from North Carolina, I consider Connecticut’s juvenile court system to be extremely enlightened in comparison. In North Carolina the upper age cutoff for original juvenile court jurisdiction is 16, while in Connecticut it is 18, with Governor Dannel Malloy advocating for including 19 and 20 year-olds. In North Carolina the decision to transfer a child from juvenile to adult criminal court for prosecution hinges primarily on the protection of the public, while in Connecticut the judge must consider the best interests of the child as well as the public. In North Carolina placement in detention is a regular occurrence, while the presumption in Connecticut is to keep adolescents at home or in the community and to provide comprehensive support and services. Likewise, in North Carolina youths receive no credit for pretrial detention when subsequently placed on probation, but in Connecticut they earn a reduction of the probation period equal to the number of days spent in detention or lockup.
Yet, whether it is North Carolina, Connecticut, or any other jurisdiction in the United States, none can compare to Israel’s enlightened approach to juvenile justice. There, only children who are at least 12 years-old can be found to be criminally responsible and, thus, prosecuted in the juvenile court system, while in North Carolina it is as young as 6, and in Connecticut it is 7. In the United States, youths may be committed to juvenile detention or long-term incarceration facilities as preadolescents (in North Carolina as young as 10, and in Connecticut at 7), while in Israel, children must be at least 15 before they can be imprisoned. Furthermore, Israeli juveniles cannot be transferred to the adult court under any circumstances.
Needless to say, the visiting Israeli clinical law professors were shocked to learn about the comparatively harsh procedures and practices of the U.S. juvenile justice system, yet they also pointed out a striking similarity. Just as there is a disproportionate number of low-income children of color in American juvenile courts, in Israel there is a disproportionate number of children who are Arabs or immigrants from Ethiopia or Russia. Likewise, in both countries a significant proportion of children in juvenile court is low-income, struggles academically, and has experienced trauma. In other words, just as the U.S. system serves as a method of social control over youths living on the socioeconomic and racial/ethnic margins, the same trend exists in a comparatively enlightened system on the other side of the globe. And so it goes….