COMMENTARY: Why does New York allow police to handcuff 7-year-olds? 

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It was agonizing to watch the body-camera footage of Rochester police physically restraining, handcuffing, and pepper-spraying a 9-year-old girl amid a mental health crisis.

It was heartbreaking that the child was the only person in the situation with the presence of mind to remind the officers — adults bestowed with the responsibility to serve and protect — that she was, in fact, a child.

It was distressing to watch as her pleas for her father were blatantly ignored.

It was sickening to hear an officer say to his colleague, “Just spray her at this point,” and to tell the girl, “You’re acting like a child.” The lack of empathy and compassion displayed by these police officers is abhorrent.

No child should be treated like this; not under these circumstances, not under any circumstance.

Yet in New York, children as young as 7 years old — first graders — can be handcuffed, transported in police cars, interrogated, detained, placed on probation, or mandated to confinement. And like the girl who was handcuffed and pepper-sprayed, it is children of color who are most subjected to these practices.

Rather than handcuff elementary school children, we must instead establish pathways to age-appropriate services to address young children’s needs, especially when a child and family are in crisis.

Reforms to juvenile justice were recently enacted to decrease the criminalization of our teenage children. However, these reforms failed to address our youngest community members, leaving children as young as 7 to be treated like criminals.

That is why the state Legislature must pass two bills introduced last session, Senate Bill S4051 and Assembly Bill A10727. Those bills would raise the lowest age at which a child could be classified a “juvenile delinquent” from 7 years old to 12 years old, and ensure that counties create community-based response programs to address behaviors of elementary school-aged children that, right now, lands youngsters in Family Court.

These bills would end the reliance on police and the threat of arrest for children under 12. They would also require every county to identify and organize services to respond to young children’s needs, mitigate harm, and build family resiliency.

In the face of the COVID-19 crisis and the fragility of many children in our communities, now is the time to commit to reforms that center the health and well-being of our communities’ most vulnerable.

Carla Palumbo is the president and chief executive officer of The Legal Aid Society of Rochester.

Stephen Weisbeck directs the Juvenile Justice Program for The Legal Aid Society of Rochester.

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