Crime & Courts

Law: Don't charge offenders younger than 10

An 11-year-old boy went to juvenile detention last weekend after police said he and two other children tried to set a west Wichita apartment on fire. But two other youths, ages 8 and 9, were sent home to their parents.

The difference: Kansas law dictates what happens to children caught in criminal situations, Sedgwick County juvenile court officials said.

The law says children ages 10-17 can be charged in juvenile court.

But no younger.

"The thought is they're too young to be able to form the intent to commit a crime," said Ron Paschal, chief deputy of the juvenile division for the Sedgwick County District Attorney's Office. "But by the time they reach 11, they should know right from wrong."

It doesn't mean, however, that the younger ones escape the scrutiny of the law.

Paschal said the case of the 11-year-old arrested for arson had not been presented to his office to decide if the case would be charged as of Tuesday.

But Paschal could talk about how similar cases could be handled in the juvenile court system, which is different than adults charged with felonies.

Cases involving children under the age of 10 are referred to the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.

"Then they have to look and see what the family situation is, if they're being properly supervised or not being where they're supposed to be," Paschal said.

Paschal said his office has seen cases where children got into trouble because of neglect.

"The parent may have a substance abuse problem," Paschal said. "Maybe they're zonked out and don't know their kids are running around willy nilly getting into trouble."

Some children are led into crime by their parents.

"Maybe a mom has a drug problem and went to prison," Paschal said, citing a hypothetical example.

"So now she's out on parole and needs money for a fix. We've seen situations in past history where children were goaded into petty offenses, because they wouldn't get in as much trouble as the parents."

Children under age 10 can be brought to court under "child in need of care" cases.

The court may order parenting classes or other help for the family. Or as a last resort, the children can be taken out of the home.

Between 2,500 and 2,800 cases are filed in juvenile court each year. About 67 percent involve children over age 10. The rest are child in need of care cases, which don't necessarily involve crimes.

Child in need of care cases opened because of young children committing crimes are rare, said the presiding judge of the juvenile division of Sedgwick County District Court.

"I've only seen a handful of those kinds of cases ever," said Judge James Burgess.

For youths ages 10 and older, criminal prosecutions can result in a range of sentences from probation to being sent to a juvenile correctional facility until they're 23.

"Many of them are kids that just do dumb stuff," Burgess said. "They aren't as mature and as thoughtful as they should be. Our goal is to get them to make better decisions."

But there are violent children who pose a safety risk.

The most serious offenders can be charged as adult and face prison.

Kansas law says youths ages 14-17 charged with the most serious offenses can be tried as adults.

But most go through the juvenile system and don't return. Burgess said 70 percent charged with a first offense in juvenile court don't repeat.

"We see the gamut from the boy who shoplifts a G.I. Joe to the ones who have guns and shoot people," Burgess said.

But for those who stay in the juvenile system, punishment is not the primary goal.

"Some have to be removed from the community for safety," Burgess added. "But our goal in every step of the process is the same — to help them make better decisions."

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