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Child or Adult?

Copyright © 2005 by David E. Ross

Ask any parent or school teacher: a child — even a 17-year-old — is not an adult. Many parents and teachers even have trouble accepting the fact that the law makes an 18-year-old an adult. After all, many teens just do not have the judgement and experience to make adult decisions. Many teens lack the understanding of such adult concepts as commitment and responsibility. Many teens cannot see their own futures further into the future than next week. They just do not understand that their actions have consequences not only for themselves but also for others. Surely, this lack of adult characteristics, if lacking in teens, must also be lacking in pre-teens and younger children.

The same laws that make an 18-year-old an adult also place restrictions on those who are younger. These laws recognize that children — minors — cannot be held accountable for their actions. They require adult supervision. Thus, depending on various state laws, minors are prohibited from doing the following:

In many jurisdictions, a minor cannot be sued. Only his or her parents can be sued for their child's actions. And in many jurisdictions, the restrictions above also apply to young adults, even into their 20s. In most states (if not all by now), adults age 20 cannot buy liquor.

Why then are we passing laws that allow children — even as young as 12 — to be tried for crimes as adults? Yes, some such children have committed horrific crimes, including murder. We want to strike out and punish them. But that is revenge, not justice.

If a child is too immature to write a will or vote, lacks sufficient judgement to have a stock brokerage account, is too young to sign a contract, how is it that a child has enough maturity to be held accountable for adult crimes? With respect to the criminal justice system:

On 1 March 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a person cannot be sentenced to death for a crime committed while a minor. Although, in the case heard by the Court, the defendant was 17 years old when he committed murder and was already 18 and an adult when sentenced, the distinction between minor and adult is very real as far as the Supreme Court is concerned, at least in terms of capital punishment.

In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled against capital punishment for children under 16, saying

the reasons why juveniles are not trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of an adult also explain why their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult.

Thompson v. Oklahoma

Later (1993), the Supreme Court concluded that a
lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility are found in youth more often than in adults and are more understandable among the young. These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions.

Johnson v. Texas

Finally, in the latest decision, the Supreme Court stated
These differences render suspect any conclusion that a juvenile falls among the worst offenders. The susceptibility of juveniles to immature and irresponsible behavior means "their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of an adult." [quoting from an earlier decision] Their own vulnerability and comparative lack of control over their immediate surroundings mean juveniles have a greater claim than adults to be forgiven for failing to escape negative influences in their whole environment. The reality that juveniles still struggle to define their identity means it is less supportable to conclude that even a heinous crime committed by a juvenile is evidence of irretrievably depraved character. From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed.

Roper v. Simmons

While those Supreme Court decisions all relate to capital punishment — eventually evolving to the abolition of the death penalty for crimes committed when a person was a minor — the words should apply equally to all children and the crimes they commit. The current situation in which juveniles are tried for crimes as adults is legal hypocrisy. If a minor is too immature and irresponsible to enjoy the rights and privileges granted to adults by civil laws, then that same person is clearly not sufficiently mature to be held responsible for violating the standards set by criminal laws for adult behavior. A person is either a child or an adult, but not both.

The above is an expansion of a section that was originally in my commentary Capital Punishment. When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled early in March 2005 that a person could not be executed for a crime committed while a minor, I removed that section and generalized it here to address the broader issue of minors being tried as adults.

15 March 2005

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