There was a milestone potentially even more resonant to my son than turning 16 and getting his driver’s license, or moving from Junior Varsity football to Varsity football, or even turning 18 and registering to vote. It was moving across that fuzzy line where, heaven forbid, he committed a crime, and he would be tried as an adult.
I want to be really, really clear. My son is an amazing young man who just graduated from college. He is considerate, kind, intelligent, hard-working. He also is white, middle-class, with a supportive family and lots of opportunities. He has never committed a crime, though he did get a ticket when he was 16 for letting a friend hop in the back of his truck to drive a block toward his house. (It is dangerous to have passengers in the back of a pickup truck–no matter that he was going no more than 10 miles per hour. I make no excuses for his dumb behavior, and neither does he. I will say that he has been riding in the back of pickup trucks in fields since he was a young kid, helping haul hay, and teenagers are not very good at considering the context when making decisions.)
So, this morning, when I listened to an NPR story about juveniles who have received life sentences without the possibility of parole, I thought about my son in high school, when he talked about crossing into the realm of adult responsibility. He, correctly, perceived that he passed that marker in January of his 8th grade year, when he turned 14, since California’s minimum age for judicial waiver is 14. As a middle-aged woman, I hadn’t been aware of that rite of passage that children cross with such significant consequences. As a 16 year old, I had watched my 24 year-old brother fall into the earth-shattering process of being arrested and tried for the brutal murder of his ex-girlfriend. From experience, I know that mistakes can be made: police sometimes arrest the wrong person and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes you don’t know what the “truth” is. And this uncertainty is also part of my understanding of our justice system. Mistakes can be made, in commission and in prosecution, but consequences are enduring. As a mom, I was chilled by my son’s insight, absolutely stunned that he was aware of this crossing while I was oblivious.
Long before you can buy alcohol, vote or drive, you can be held accountable, for the rest of your life, for an action you take. Just since 2005, the US has (reluctantly in some cases) relinquished its option to execute prisoners for crimes committed when they were children. But states vary regarding the “minimum age” limit set to provide a “judicial waiver” to allow a minor to be tried as an adult. In Kansas and Vermont, that age is 10. In many states, no minimum is set. (See this Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention summary.)
Today, the US Supreme Court will hear arguments about whether or not it is unconstitutional, under the cruel and unusual punishment prohibition, to sentence 14-year-olds to life without the possibility of parole. Click the image below to follow the story from National Public Radio on the Supreme Court challenge on this issue. (Maddie also spotted the NPR story and suggested it for the post.)
If you are interested, you might want to check out this video on juvenile education.