Through the various debates we’ve engaged in here regarding the different minimum age laws for various activities and how they vary from state to state, this is one that hadn’t made it onto my radar yet. How old do you have to be before you’re considered an adult who is responsible for their actions in a court of law? That line is drawn at or near 18 across most of the country, though exceptions are made for particularly heinous crimes committed by juveniles who are tried as adults. In Massachusetts, however, they’re looking to push the limit in the other direction. If newly proposed legislation goes through, residents charged with crimes may be considered juveniles up until their 21st birthday. (Boston Globe)
In Massachusetts, suspected criminal offenders are typically prosecuted as adults if they are 18 or older. Last year, state lawmakers tried without success to raise the age to 19. And now there’s an attempt to go even further and raise the age to 21.
It’s part of a small but growing effort, rooted mostly in the Northeast, with lawmakers in Connecticut, New York, and Illinois filing similar bills that they say would keep young offenders out of the adult criminal justice system, helping with their rehabilitation.
In 2016, Vermont became the first state to pass such a law, allowing those under 21 to be treated as juveniles.
Advocates say that teenagers and young adults do not yet have the brain development to allow them to fully gauge their actions, so they should not be held to the same level of responsibility as adults.
I’ll admit that I missed the news about Vermont raising the age to 21 a few years ago, but then again, that’s Bernie Sanders’ territory so what did we expect? That Vermont law went into effect last July, but it specifies that defendants may seek to be considered youthful offenders up to the age of 21. It’s apparently decided on a case by case basis and does not apply to violent crimes. I suppose this is more of that prison reform we keep hearing about.
And the prison system is definitely in need of reform, with some positive changes having taken place recently. But let’s keep in mind what happens when you push this age limit question too far. Young men of 19 and 20 can wind up being shoved into the same juvenile detention system with kids who are of middle school age. Does nobody see a problem with this?
Even if you don’t find that element of the question disturbing, we should be asking the underlying question yet again. At what age are you considered an adult and someone who is responsible for their actions? The argument being made is that the brain isn’t fully finished forming until your mid-twenties, so you can’t be considered fully responsible. But if that’s the case, then how can you be considered responsible enough to make the decision to enlist in the military? Should we be letting these underdeveloped brain people drive cars? Do you suppose child labor laws should apply until you turn 21? It sounds like we shouldn’t be allowing these “children” to apply for loans.
Keep in mind that not so very long ago, certainly in the days of some of your grandparents, most people were married and raising families by the age of 18 and a 21-year-old daughter was almost looked at as a spinster. People went to work without finishing high school. Responsibility was frequently thrust on teens at a very early juncture in their lives.
Now we seem to be experiencing some sort of moment of cultural evolution where personal responsibility is to be avoided at all cost. People have the ability to know right from wrong at a fairly early age, particularly if they had any sort of decent upbringing. But hey, if you want to raise the age of adulthood to 21, go for it. But you should have the decency to make it apply across the board.