Monday, April 14, 2008

Let's review here: Teenagers are not adults. They can't drink, they can't vote (for the most part), they can't sign contracts, many of them cannot lawfully engage in sexual conduct. We place all kinds of limitations and restrictions on them because we know better than they do. We're the grown-ups who set the rules. They're still in high school.

Do you remember yourself in high school? I do. I was an idiot. And I was one of the smart ones. I thought I was so wise and mature, the surest sign of immaturity. Sometimes I would cry at the drop of a hat for no apparent reason. I was developing an entirely new body that I didn't have the first clue what to do with. I also had far more capacity to be mean, petty, and cruel than I ever had before or since. And I would have been far too likely to do things I thought were wrong just to get my friends to like me. (And I was one of the self-assured, confident kids!) Basically, I was a big mess of raging hormones and out-of-control emotions with very little impulse control. As were we all. Some of us make it out unscathed, never having one of our big mistakes blow up in our faces. Some of us aren't so lucky. But we manage to grow up. We get out of high school, we gain maturity as we gain independence, and we pretty much universally look back on our teenage selves and marvel that we somehow made it past those years.

Knowing all this about our own selves, why are so many adults so frickin' eager to treat teenagers who commit crimes like adults?!? Do they really not remember the monumentally stupid things they did when they were teens? Have they forgotten all the times they just got damn lucky that no one got hurt? Do they really want to be judged for the rest of their lives on the acts they committed in high school??

The case that has everyone talking right now, of course, is the pack of Florida teens who videotaped themselves beating up on another girl. The youngest defendant is 14, the oldest 18. All will be tried as adults. I think that is seriously messed up. No question what these kids did is terrible and should be dealt with severely. They obviously planned this thing and wanted to broadcast it. They should absolutely face consequences for their actions, because that's how teenagers learn to become better adults. But some people (Nancy Grace and her rabid viewers) are talking about really long prison terms, even life in prison. For teenagers going nuts with rage? Throw away the lives of 14 and 15 year-olds forever because they did a bad thing now? Talk about nuts.

Under no circumstances should 14 and 15 year-olds face adult criminal prosecution. I will be that bright-line about it. But anymore, anytime a kid commits a serious felony, the public outcry is for the kid not to be coddled but to be treated like the adult s/he is! BUT, DAMMIT, THEY ARE NOT ADULTS! Isn't it our job as adults to help kids when they go down the wrong path? We're supposed to teach them how to get control of those emotions, how to live with the hormone swings, and generally how to make rational, thought-out decisions. When they make really bad, even violent, choices at 15, we aren't supposed to give up on them for life.
Turns out there's medical research to back me up on this. Teenagers really are idiots. Their brains aren't fully developed yet in critical regions, including the areas that cover impulse control and decision-making. You have to get to 20 and older before those regions become fully-developed.

So based on the medical science and what we all ought to know from our own teen years, let's stop pretending that teenagers are adults. We only insist on that fiction in the criminal justice realm. In any other news story about teenagers, we would refer to them as kids. But one of Nancy Grace's guest just tonight insisted on referring to all of these kids (including the 14 year-old) as adults. That's just bullshit. I'd really like for him to think back to his teenage years and remember all of the things he did back then that he might not be so proud of now. Looking back at himself, would he think his 14 or 15 year-old self could possibly be considered an adult? I doubt it.


BellsforStacy said...

I think while yes, I was an idiot at 15, I would never have hurt anyone. And the girl these girls victimized has life long consquences that she will have to suffer. Why should the girls that inflicted that not have life long ramifications?

I'm sure you made a lot of mistakes too, as most teenagers do, but this is past the point of simple mistakes. They knowingly planned, executed and seriously injured their peer. Even as children, actions have consequences. Serious actions, have serious consequences.

S said...

I absolutely agree, as I said, that they should face consequences. They should absolutely be punished. Just not in the same way we would punish an adult for aggravated battery. They did not make an adult decision to make this crime because they aren't capable yet of making adult decisions.

Sending them to adult prison for years is counter-productive, worse for society in the long run, and immoral, I believe. The cruelty or gravity of the acts of teenagers doesn't magically make them adults.

I think a juvenile justice system designed to help these very wrong-headed teenagers turn into productive, decent adults is a far better answer than treating them now as criminal adults.

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