Cuffing Kids: How Young is Too Young?

Posted on April 26, 2012 by


When Salecia Johnson, a six year old girl, was handcuffed by police for a “tantrum” at school, Milledgeville Police Chief Dray Swicord justified the action by saying, “Our policy is that any detainee transported to our station in a patrol vehicle is to be handcuffed in the back. There is no age discrimination on that rule.”

I don’t buy it.

If we follow this idea of cuffing anyone in police custody to its logical conclusion, we would expect that police would put anyone in cuffs. Six-year-olds. Five-year-olds. How about four? Three? Two? Newborn?

When we reach the level of newborn, it’s clear that the police would never handcuff an infant, which means that we can’t take Swicord’s words at face value. It cannot possibly be true that everyone is cuffed, and, in turn, that means that line has to be drawn somewhere. By asserting policy as a justification for putting Johnson in cuffs, Swicord is attempting to deny that there is a human element in the decision-making.

As a society, we have struggled with how to handle the youthful offender. Historically, we relied upon the common law principle of responsibility, which held that those under the age of 14 were generally not capable of forming the necessary intent to commit a crime.  Yet, in today’s harsh justice society, there are some states that have no lower age limit for criminal responsibility. This means that, should a prosecutor decide to do so, the law allows criminal prosecution of anyone, including infants.

Psychology and medical science tell us what we should already know: a child’s brain is different. The developing brain is fundamentally different than that of the mature adult. The decision to treat children differently, and specifically more leniently, is not merely a moral choice. It is based in science. Failure to recognize age-based differences is, itself, a form of age discrimination.

It’s true that figuring out where to draw this line for older children is difficult. We all know teens who have matured rapidly and function more like adults than children, just as we know teens who persist in child-like behaviors and thinking well past our conventional expectations. Thinking back to our own adolescent years, I’m sure we can all remember the vicissitudes of that time of transition, the ways in which our own maturity could vacillate acutely even from hour to hour.

But six years old? C’mon. I can’t help but point out the presence of other sociologically relevant demographic variables in this case. Johnson is African-American. Probably not upper class. And, as a girl, Johnson was behaving outside of gendered behavior expectations. Suggesting that she was cuffed in accordance with neutral standard operating procedures is one part CYA tactic, one part dramatization of evil, one part lawsuit posturing, and one part outright lie.

You can do better, Milledgeville Police Department.