A New York 7-Year-Old Was Accused of Rape. Is Arresting Him the Answer?

He spent eight months in a juvenile detention center. Mr. Rice, now 31 and an advocate for at-risk youth, believes that if he had been white, he would have been offered therapy. “It was the criminalization of my childhood,” he said. “My behavior was crying for help — not handcuffs.”

In Massachusetts, in the three years since the new law took effect, there has been no uptick in criminal activity by children, according to Sana Fadel, the deputy director of Citizens for Juvenile Justice, even as the juvenile court system’s caseload has dropped by 40 percent. Rather, children are being handled via supportive programs that focus on delivering social services, she said.

“The legal system is probably a hundred years behind, because the usual test is, ‘Do you understand that this is right and this is wrong?’” said Jane Tewksbury, who worked in Massachusetts as a prosecutor and later served as commissioner of the state’s youth services department. “A 4-year-old could say that, but that doesn’t mean if they stabbed somebody with a pencil that they actually know what’s happening.”

Court proceedings can also be incomprehensible for small children. When Debbie Freitas, a lawyer based in Lowell, Mass., brought an 8-year-old client before a magistrate in 2018 for bringing a butter knife to school, the child exclaimed: “‘Oh, wow, are we going to see the president?’” Ms. Freitas recalled. “They are so young they do not understand the very basics of what is going on.”

News of the arrest in Brasher Falls stunned residents, said Mark A. Peets, the supervisor of the Town of Brasher. “You can’t fathom a 7-year-old being arrested; you watch all these ‘true crimes’ on TV, and you just never think of a 7-year-old,” he said.

But alongside the collective grief for the victim, he said, is a sense that such a young perpetrator too must need help.

“There is right and wrong, but there has got to be some sort of social service protocol,” Mr. Peets said, “some sort of way to handle this without him being treated almost like an adult.”

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