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UM Study Raises Questions About Juvenile Arrest Policies

By Edwin B. Smith

University of Mississippi

Abigail Novak. Photo by Thomas Graning/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

A study of juvenile arrests policies in Florida made by University of Mississippi researchers poses questions about similar practices in Mississippi.

Abigail Novak, assistant professor of criminal justice and legal studies, and Vitoria De Francisco Lopes, a doctoral student in the program, co-authored “What About the Kids? A Multimethod Approach to Understanding Law Enforcement Policies Pertaining to the Arrest of Children in Florida.” The American Journal of Criminal Justice published the research on July 25.

“Unlike Florida, Mississippi has a state-level minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction,” Novak said. “However, Mississippi’s minimum age is young enough that officers may still be allowed substantial discretion in arrest scenarios involving children.”

Even though Mississippi mandates a minimum age for juvenile court jurisdiction, it does not provide clear guidance for navigating these situations in a way that best serves children and communities, she said.

“Our findings emphasize the need for concrete guidance for officers that reduces discretion when arrest decisions involve children, and appropriate training on child development and strategies to address suspected delinquent behavior among children that do not involve justice system involvement,” she said.

Vitoria De Francisco Lopes. Submitted photo

Novak and De Francisco Lopes’ research revealed that Florida law enforcement agencies provide little policy guidance to officers regarding interactions with children, particularly interactions that may lead to an arrest. Most agencies do not provide written guidance to officers regarding arrest scenarios involving children ages 12 and under, and leave discretion to the officer.

When agencies do provide policies, they allow for substantial discretion in decision-making, the researchers learned.

Though allowing for discretion in policies can be beneficial, it also opens the door for individual and systemic biases to influence decision-making in arrests, De Francisco Lopes said. This can lead to long-term disproportionality in negative outcomes.

“For example, in some policies we found, officers were instructed to determine whether to arrest a child based, in part, on whether they could contact the child’s parent or immediately release a child into a parent’s custody,” she said. “Some parents are more difficult to contact due to work schedules, and some parents may not have the flexibility to leave work to immediately obtain a child.

“Arresting a child because their parent is unavailable while not arresting another – even if they have engaged in the same behavior – leaves one child vulnerable to the long-term consequences associated with an arrest and justice system involvement.”

The findings raise several issues, De Francisco Lopes said.

“First, they highlight the lack of guidance and training provided to law enforcement officers regarding child development and interactions with children,” she said. “Law enforcement contact with younger children is increasing, and our findings demonstrate officers may not be given sufficient policy guidance to help them to navigate arrest scenarios involving children.”

The findings also show how existing policies may contribute to the overrepresentation of children of color in juvenile justice systems, Novak said.

“Our findings contribute to understanding of why children may be arrested, as well as how discretion in policy language may be contributing to disproportionate arrests for boys, or children of color,” she said. “We provide recommendations to reduce officer-level discretion in an effort to better equip officers for arrest scenarios involving children, and ultimately reduce discretionary juvenile system involvement for children.

“Our findings also make recommendations regarding the importance of state and national minimum ages for juvenile court jurisdiction to prevent justice system contact for children.”

Both Novak and De Francisco Lopes said that their findings can be applied to Mississippi and other states.

“Our next step is to conduct similar work at the national level, looking at policies across states to get a better understanding of law enforcement policies pertaining to arrests involving children nationally,” Novak said.


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