Thursday, June 14, 2012

Teenagers really aren't adults. Really.

What is the point of having a juvenile justice system if we're just going to waive every kid accused of a serious felony up to adult court anyway? There is such a societal disconnect in terms of how we view teenagers, kids. When we're willing to consider them kids and when we're not.

There isn't a state in this country where anyone under the age of 18 can be bound by a contract, regardless of how smart that teenager might be. (The exception, of course, is for any teenager who is officially declared an emancipated minor by a court, but those kids are few and far between.) Child pornography laws almost universally apply to anyone under 18. (Honestly, I don't know of any laws that have a younger legal age, but the lawyer in me says "almost" because I haven't researched every single state.) Nowhere can someone under 18 vote or smoke. Heck, you have to be 3 years older even than that to drink legally. No exceptions.

But if you're 15 and pull the trigger on a gun, an awful lot of jurisdictions will push, and push hard, to treat you like an adult. See, eg., this case. It makes no sense. And it seems that the more serious the crime, the likelier prosecutors are to push for adult status. Which, if you think about it honestly, is pretty much the opposite of how it should be.

In so many areas of the law, we adults all acknowledge how dumb teenagers can be. We are willing to remember what stupid mistakes we made as teens. How utterly incapable we were of thinking about long-term consequences. When we're 15 and do something dumb and impulsive, we don't think about how that will affect ourselves and others when we're 40. We just don't. And when it comes to contracts or sex or drinking or voting, we as a society take a no-exceptions approach to protecting dumb-ass teens from themselves. Regardless of the specific circumstances. Regardless of the specific kid's intelligence level, education, etc. We just know that we know better than idiot teens, even really smart teens. Because even really smart teens are bundles of crazed hormones with no developed impulse control.

So why are we as a society (and by we, I mean people other than me, because I would treat all teens as juveniles) so willing to forget our natural tendency to treat all teenagers as idiots who can't control themselves when it comes to criminal law? Yes, kids who are 15, 16, 17, are old enough to have some sense of right and wrong. But so are kids who are 8 and we don't treat them like adults when it comes to criminal prosecution. The point with teenagers isn't whether they have some abstract sense of right and wrong, but rather whether they have fully developed impulse control (they don't) or the ability to appreciate the real, lasting, long-term consequences of their actions (they don't). It's because we get this about teens that we protect them from their impulsive actions if they try to enter into contracts or engage in some sexual activities. There is no intellectually honest reason for not also protecting them in some way from their impulsive actions that violate criminal laws, even if those actions result in serious, lasting harm to others. The harm resulting from the action doesn't change the fact that the act itself was done by a dumbass teenager.

Treating kids like adults based on the seriousness of the resulting harm doesn't jibe with the point of treating kids differently in the first place, which is that kids don't have the brain function necessary to fully appreciate the possible consequences (aka harms) of their actions!

In Sarah's World, the utopia where I am the benevolent dictator in charge of everything (I truly think you could all trust me to make decisions that would be in your best interests (and you'd all be really well dressed), though I don't blame you for not wanting to live under even the most benevolent and wise of dictators), those teenagers who were tried as adults would be as few and far between as emancipated minors are. And I wouldn't use the nature of their crimes when considering whether teens should be tried as adults. I would only look at the particular teen, that teen's brain development, maturity, ability to articulate consequences. Because looking at the act itself, and the act's resulting harm, is nonsensical when what we're supposed to be recognizing is that kids can't be expected to control their actions in the same way adults can and can't be expected to comprehend the life-long consequences of those actions.

But I'm not in charge and "tough on crime" is in, so kids who would be protected from contracts they had entered into or sexual relationships they willingingly engaged in will continue to be treated as sternly as 40 year-old adults when they pick up a gun, intellectual honesty be damned.


Meryl said...

I think there's a disturbing mentality behind it all--"If you're a bad enough person to pull a trigger at 15, you're not worth trying to save and we just need to lock you up forever." I can't imagine who I'd be if the whole world had given up on me at 15 years old. :(

BellsforStacy said...

It's terribly sad. I think the way we treat our kids is full of hypocrisy. So sad.

Side note ... as much as I think I'd be better dressed ... I would not want to live in your utopia. :) I can't wear high heels but once every six months and I think that might get me caned if you are in charge.

S said...

Stacy, you would not get caned. No one would in my utopia. (I'm a pacifist at heart, remember?) I want all people to look their best within their comfort levels. I guarantee you I would find shoes that met my approval that you would be comfortable in.

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