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Juvenile justice officials struggle with handling Clark County’s youngest offenders


Sexual assault.

Assault with a deadly weapon.

Children as young as 8 years old face such charges and end up in detention. The question being asked by juvenile justice professionals: Is that really the best way to handle Clark County’s youngest offenders?

“These children are way too young to understand the juvenile justice system,” Susan Roske, an attorney with Clark County’s juvenile public defender’s office, said Friday. “And children of that age should not be incarcerated. We are talking about children, we are talking about pre-adolescents.”

Roske is advocating for changes to state law that would clarify at what ages a child would go through the juvenile justice system and be charged with a crime.

State law defines a “child” as younger than 18 years of age. Roske is pushing for that to be changed to define a child as someone who is between the ages of 11 and 18 years old. Current law also allows a child who is 8 years old to be charged with a crime, and Roske is advocating for that to be changed to 11 years old.

Now, children younger than 12 cannot be placed in a state correctional facility, but the law doesn’t apply to local detention centers.

Those in the juvenile justice system say they don’t like to see 8-year-olds sitting in detention.

“I think there’s value in looking at what’s in the best interest for the community’s safety and what’s in the best interest of that child,” John “Jack” Martin, director of the Clark County Department of Juvenile Justice Services, said Friday.

The average age for a child to be charged with a crime in most states is 10, Roske said.

THE YOUNGEST OFFENDERS

The population of 8- to 10-year-olds moving through Clark County’s juvenile justice system is not large.

In 2013, seven 8-year-olds, eight 9-year-olds and 23 10-year-olds were brought before the court, according to statistics from petitions filed by the district attorney’s office. Two 9-year-olds and six 10-year-olds were detained, according to statistics from juvenile justice.

In 2012, five 8-year-olds, 13 9-year-olds and 21 10-year-olds were brought before the court. Three 9-year-olds and three 10-year-olds were detained.

In 2011, three 8-year-olds, six 9-year-olds and 29 10-year-olds were brought before the court. Two 8-year-olds and four 10-year-olds were detained.

Not every child who is arrested, cited or detained gets a petition filed by the Clark County district attorney’s juvenile division, said Brigid Duffy, chief deputy district attorney. When looking to file charges, Duffy’s office looks at whether there’s restitution involved.

Some cases are handled through informal juvenile justice probation, where the child is warned and referred to services, while others are referred to Duffy’s office to face formal charges.

Battery, malicious destruction of property, open or gross lewdness, school disturbances and battery on a school employee are the most common filed charges with this young population.

Sexual offenses are scrutinized closely and cause great concern, Duffy said. “We have a victim there and we also have a child who is committing these types of offenses.”

In those cases, Duffy’s office looks at how officials can help the victim and the alleged offender.

“Eight-year-olds don’t really know how to commit those types of offenses, so we are concerned that they are what we call ‘sexually reactive’ and may be themselves victims,” Duffy said.

Another issue with incarcerating or jailing young children is their legal competency, Duffy said. That would include whether they understand the charges against them, the nature of the proceedings and whether they can assist in their own defense.

“Our 8-year-olds are incompetent,” she said. “I don’t know that we’ve had a competent 8-year-old.”

Duffy’s office also is sensitive to young children being detained, she said. Duffy generally is notified within two hours of a child younger than 12 being brought into the Clark County Juvenile Detention Center.

The notification procedure is in place to see if there’s something that can be done to get them out of the detention center quickly and into another placement.

“I don’t like to see an 8-, 9- or 10-year-old sitting in a holding cell,” she said.

Proposed changes in state law regarding this population are changes that the district attorney’s office could support, provided there’s an alternative that still would address these kinds of problems.

“I don’t want to ignore an 8-year-old who is committing a sexual offense, or a 9-year-old, and unfortunately it happens,” Duffy said. “I believe the DA’s office understands that these children are young, understands that the delinquency system may not be necessarily the place for them, but there are offenses that are being committed by children that young and that we can’t ignore.”

AN ALTERNATIVE TO DETENTION

An alternative to going through the juvenile justice system as a delinquent would be to treat the youngest offenders as a “child in need of supervision,” also known as CHINS, Roske said. Children who commit an offense that would not be criminal if they were adults — such as runaways, truants and curfew violators — are considered CHINS.

Treating young offenders as a child in need of supervision would limit their time in detention because, under state law, CHINS who are taken into custody and detained must be released within 24 hours.

The child may be detained for an additional 24 hours, but no more than 48 after the detention hearing, according to state statute.

“The juvenile court would still maintain supervision through the probation department,” Roske said. “The court’s focus would be on treatment and services for the child and family as opposed to something more punitive.”

There would be costs associated with treating them as CHINS, but the expense would be lower because they would not be placed in detention, which costs $279 a day, for a long time, Roske said.

“None of us in the system want to see these kids come through detention,” Family Court Judge William Voy said.

Although 8- to 10-year-olds rarely end up in formal adjudication, Voy agrees that there has to be a plan to handle them if they are not to go through the juvenile justice system.

“Unless we have an alternative … I think we would be doing a disservice (not only) to the kids and families, but also to the community and the community’s safety,” he said.

Duffy also has testified that if the age of children who are held accountable for committing a delinquent crime is raised, an alternative could be treating them as CHINS so the court still could provide services and make the parents accountable for making sure the children get the services they need.

Martin said the younger a child is when he or she comes into the system, the more likely he or she is to stay in the system.

“A child is a symptom of their environment,” he said. “It shows that there are some failures around that child.”

Contact Yesenia Amaro at yamaro@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0440. Find her on Twitter: @YeseniaAmaro.

 

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