Louisiana court system struggles with whether or not 17 year olds are adults

At what age does one leave behind childhood and become an adult? That’s a question which will produce wildly varying answers when put to people in different countries or even different states in the U.S. and, even then, it depends on the subject at hand. There are still places around the world where you essentially become an adult in most every sense of the word once you hit puberty. In Jewish culture you leave childhood behind (at least in theory) when you reach the age of 13, or 12 in some sects, and have your Bar Mitzvah or Bat Mitzvah. None of these milestones will allow you vote in the United States presidential election, however, nor get into a bar.

Another big question which has been debated for decades without any national consensus deals with the age at which a criminal offender can be treated as an adult rather than being shuttled off to the juvenile system. In Louisiana that debate is heating up yet again because the default age is 17, but opponents feel that it should be raised to 18. (AT&T Live News)

At 17, Devin Harris is not old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. But when he was accused of trying to use someone else’s credit card to buy cigarettes, he swiftly realized that — at least when it comes to the criminal justice system — the state of Louisiana considers him to be an adult.

“The last thing I wanted was to be in the system,” said Harris, who was jailed for nine nights in April because his mother could not afford the bond before he entered a pre-trial diversion program. For the teenager, those were long nights. “I called my dad, I ain’t talked to my dad in almost two years … I just needed somebody to talk to,” he said…

The state Senate overwhelmingly passed legislation to include 17-year-old offenders in the juvenile justice system. The measure now goes to the House. The District Attorneys’ Association dropped its opposition to the measure when authors agreed to extend the phase-in period.

We obviously have a wildly inconsistent and conflicted attitude toward what constitutes adulthood in America and there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of clarity as to how to resolve it or even if it needs to be fully resolved. We allow young men and women to not only enlist in the military but to enter basic training and begin their active duty service at 17. (I turned 18 in boot camp myself.) And yet while you’re old enough to fight and die for your country you are too immature to buy a pack of cigarettes or drink a beer. At what age are you enough of an adult to get married and start a family? It’s generally held to be 18, but with parental consent it can be as young as 13. (Thanks, New Hampshire!) Then again, in Mississippi you have to be 21. It’s pretty crazy all the way around.

When it comes to responsibility for committing a crime, how are we supposed to handle this? The linked report cites psychiatrists who claim that the brain isn’t fully formed and prepared to fully grasp concepts like personal responsibility and consequences prior to the age of 18 or even higher. But many of the cops I know in a couple of major metropolitan areas will tell you that the 17 year olds they run into in lower income, high crime areas are far from “children” by that age and some have lengthy criminal records already, largely due to environmental factors. The courts allow flexibility in particularly heinous cases and treat much younger kids as adults when they commit murder and other violent crimes. Just last December in Baltimore we saw a 14 year old scheduled for trial as an adult in the rape and murder of a 16 year old girl. Reading the details of the charges it’s hard to argue that this was “just a kid.”

This might be an indication that we need to look at doing away with these hard and fast age limits for criminal prosecution. Human beings are all unique individuals and we mature at different rates. Some may remain filled with childlike wonder and a lack of maturity when they graduate high school while others may have fallen into a pattern of pure evil years earlier. Devin Harris was trying to buy a pack of cigarettes with somebody else’s credit card at the age of 17. Does that make him an adult? That’s probably for a jury to decide and many other factors would need to be taken into account rather than rushing to change the law and place him on one side or the other of some invisible legal line.

Some sentencing guidelines are clearly appropriate to provide a level playing field in the criminal justice system, but it seems as if the actions of the criminal speak louder than the date on their birth certificate. Making the proposed change to the law in Louisiana isn’t going to provide any additional clarity.