Bill would prohibit incarceration of children under 14


STATE HOUSE – Saying the state must do better to serve the social and emotional needs of children, Rep. Rebecca Kislak and Sen. Bridget Valverde are sponsoring legislation to prohibit the incarceration of children younger than 14 at the state training school.

“Children who are getting involved with law enforcement at a very early age need help, not incarceration. In most cases, they are in this situation because they have not received critical social, emotional and perhaps educational supports that they probably should have benefited from years earlier. Their interaction with Family Court should be a catalyst to get them that help,” said Representative Kislak (D-Dist. 4, Providence). “If the training school is actually the best placement Rhode Island has to offer for a child in need of services, then we are failing our kids.”

Said Senator Valverde (D-Dist. 35, North Kingstown, East Greenwich, South Kingstown), “Incarceration of children who aren’t even high school age is harmful to them, and it is not going to serve to put them on a better path. Currently, we are sending them to the training school because we don’t have other programs in place to serve them in an appropriate way. What we’re saying with this bill is that we need to establish those programs, and right away. This dangerous practice is simply unacceptable, and we need to provide kids more appropriate services.”

The legislation (2023-H 5359, 2023-S 0344), which is scheduled for a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee tomorrow after the Senate session, would prohibit Family Court from detaining or committing any juvenile under the age of 14 years to the training school for any offense, with exceptions for murder, first-degree sexual assault or an attempt to commit either.

The bill was heard by the House Judiciary Committee in March, and has been supported by Rhode Island Kids Count, the Rhode Island chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, The Rhode Island Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the Rhode Island Medical Society and the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island.

“Children in early adolescence possess neither the cognitive capacity nor the psychosocial maturity to engage meaningfully with the justice system. At this young age, contact with the justice system has been shown to disrupt healthy social development, exacerbate mental and physical health problems, and paradoxically increase the likelihood of long-term incarceration into adulthood. That is why numerous national professional organizations including the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, in addition to the Rhode Island Council of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, have taken a public stance supporting bills that limit incarceration of children under the age of 14,” said Dr. Jessica Soto, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with an interest in juvenile justice.

In Rhode Island, there is no minimum age at which a child can be criminally prosecuted and sent to the training school.

In 2021, there were nine 13-year-olds and a 12-year-old sent to the training school, according to testimony provided by Rhode Island Kids Count when the bill was heard last year. Concern for their safety in a high school-age population is part of the concern.

Equity is another.

“Children whose families have the means to get them interventions earlier are far less likely to have interaction with law enforcement. Those who do are also more likely to have legal services that help prevent them from being sent to the training school. The children whose families have fewer means are the ones who are landing there, and they are going to have fewer supports to help them with the trauma they experience,” said Senator Valverde.

Said Representative Kislak, “There are service providers with the experience to serve the small number of children who would be affected by this bill. Developing and funding programs with them would be far more effective from a rehabilitation standpoint, less costly to our state and certainly more developmentally appropriate for the children involved. National and international standards call for the limit we are seeking, which will better serve children who need intervention.”