Urban Wire How should young adults be punished for their crimes?
John Roman
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The idea of holding children less responsible for their crimes has been common law for centuries. But what age marks the line between childhood and adulthood?

In 1996, 13 states tried youth under 18 as adults. Today, only nine do— and many of those states are revisiting that choice.

While raising the age for adult criminal responsibility is an important step, such measures do not go far enough. As every parent knows—and every child eventually realizes—defining a bright line between childhood and adulthood has always created a false dichotomy. It is time to consider the idea that there should be a place in our legal system for those who commit crimes who are no longer children, but are not yet fully adults.

Consider this question: What is so magical about an 18th birthday?

At one time, the 16th birthday held some of 18’s clout, and its passage was commemorated with eligibility for a driver’s license. Now many states greatly limit 16- and 17-year-old drivers. Eighteen was long considered the moment when you were transformed into a sober adult who could maturely handle your liquor. Deaths and dismemberment from drunken teen drivers showed the folly of that notion. The private sector goes further, banning teens from renting cars and inflating early twenty-something’s rental and auto insurance rates. (On a more positive note, the new Affordable Care Act allows young adults to remain on their parents’ health plans until they are 26.)

Where did the mystical adult-defining properties of 18 come from? Three places, I think. For one, 18 is generally the age when young people leave their parents’ nests and go to college. But colleges have begun to re-think their role in loco parentis, placing increased restrictions on those behaviors many young adults would happily engage in if left to their own devices, like binge drinking and hazing.

Second, while you can enlist in the military at age 17 with your parents’ permission, the decision is all yours at 18—but with an extremely important caveat: You can be a soldier at 18, but not an officer. Society is happy to have teens as grunts, but not as leaders.

Finally, the youth movement of the 1960’s and opposition to the Vietnam War led to the 1971 adoption of the 26th amendment, setting the right to vote no higher than 18.

Those last two points are inextricably tied—those who might be cannon fodder should have the right to decide in part who sends them to war. But that says next to nothing about whether they are fully formed adults.

While 18-year-olds are certainly capable of handling many adult responsibilities, the evidence that young adults are not fully emotionally mature is growing. This graphic tells the story quite clearly. While intellectual ability approaches average adult levels around age 18, psychological maturity is well below adult levels until the mid-20s.

And evidence is increasing that housing juveniles in adult facilities is detrimental not just to their futures, which are limited by restrictions on where they can live, what jobs they can do, and who they can associate with. Treating juveniles as adults increases the number of crimes they commit as adults, making all of us less safe.

As we move toward a national consensus that youth under age 18 are too young to be treated as adults, we should broaden the discussion to include whether young adults are too immature to be subject to the adult criminal justice system.

Should we embrace what every parent knows: That there is a third period in the maturation process where people are no longer children, but not yet adults? A three-tiered justice system, including a system for 18 to 25 year-olds, could improve the futures of youth who have committed crimes and enhance public safety as well.

Follow John Roman on Twitter at @JohnKRoman. 


Photo by Ric Francis/AP

Research Areas Crime, justice, and safety
Tags Delinquency and crime