James Alan Fox and Jack Levin
August 25, 2015
Court is not the only arena where it's criminal to be treated as an adult.
Last Friday, a Wisconsin judge entered not guilty pleas on behalf of two 13-year-old girls accused of repeatedly stabbing a classmate just to please the fictional horror character Slender Man. Rejecting defense counsel's arguments for transferring jurisdiction to juvenile court, Judge Michael Bohren insisted that the girls be tried in criminal court. The apparent motive for the attack is absolutely absurd, but then so is the notion that 13-year-olds have the same level of maturity and reasoning ability as adults.
In Wisconsin and many other states, kids age 13, and even younger, are considered old enough to face a jury "of their peers" in adult court, but not old enough to serve on a jury that would decide their fate. They are presumed to have the same ability as adults to discern right and wrong, but not guilt and innocence.
Criminal court is not the only arena with ironies involving age limits:
. A sixth-grader in some states can have an abortion without parental approval, but an eighth-grader can be suspended for bringing Midol to school to relieve menstrual pain.
. If a 19-year-old boy takes a picture of his naked 17-year-old girlfriend, it may be regarded as child porn. But if he gets her pregnant, the government will pay forprenatal care.
. Teenagers must pay adult prices at the theater, but they cannot be admitted to view an adult film.
. Supporters of the drinking age increase from 18 to 21 expressed concern about immature decision-making, yet the voting age was lowered from 21 to 18.
. Under federal law, the minimum age for owning a handgun is 18, yet an 8-year-old can legally possess a long gun, even though that child might not be able to shoulder the weapon or the responsibility.
. A 16-year-old can take a full-time job, but in almost half the states he or she cannot voluntarily leave school before age 18.
. A majority of states set the minimum age of consent for sex at 16 or higher. However, sexualized garments (e.g., skimpy bikinis, skinny jeans and booty shorts) are marketed to preteens.
These inconsistencies have not always existed. In ancient Jewish law, for example, a 13-year-old boy's Bar Mitzvah unequivocally marked the transition from childhood to adulthood with all associated rights and responsibilities. With his prideful pronouncement, "Today I am a man!," he could be called to read from the Torah, join in daily prayer with his elders, enter into binding contracts and even get married, but he also was obligated to follow God's commandments.
In today's secular society, the line of demarcation between juvenile and adult has been profoundly blurred, causing chaos and contradiction in our public policies, laws and parental prohibitions. Youngsters are at the mercy of government and corporations that seem to classify "tweens" as either adults or juveniles based on the convenience of adults rather than anything more concrete. There is no science or rationale behind their determinations and no agreement as to when a young person should be considered a grown-up.
The blurring of boundaries hardly began with the millennial generation. A broadening of acceptable behavior by age came with the social revolution of the 1960s, a period when youthful Baby Boomers were dominant in numbers as well as cultural influence.
During this era, many of society's rules became increasingly relaxed and informal, releasing individuals from an entire range of institutional constraints and creating the conditions for enhanced personal freedom. What had long been regarded as firm and clear-cut timetables for separating young people from their parents' generationdissolved into ambiguous guidelines - a situation sociologists associate with "anomie," in which figuring out how you fit into society is perplexing because the rules have been thrown out the window.
Inconsistencies in age-based norms have helped to create generations of young people who see policies and laws as hypocritical, at best. For a generation, teens have complained about the ability to fight and die for our country at the age of 18, but not the right to have a drunken send-off party. Now you have the right to consent to an abortion caused by the sex you are not allowed to have. You can do adult time for crimes while schools say you can't make adult decisions about a headache.
If we want youngsters to respect the prescriptions and proscriptions of conventional society, then we, just like the ancient Jews, should provide them with a coherent set of limits and sanctions that make sense.
James Alan Fox is the Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.