In 1969 my husband boarded a military transport bound for what he assumed would be a long flight to Danang. The flight landed instead on the island of Okinawa, where he and another young recruit were instructed to grab their seabags and get off the plane. They had just been transferred to non-combat duties for the duration. Why? Because they were just 17 years old. One of the flashpoints in a war chock full of them was that 17 was just too damned young to send American men halfway around the globe to fight in an increasingly unpopular war.
When you’re 17 in the United States you’re legally still pretty much of a kid. You can’t buy cigarettes or drink alcohol. You can’t join the military or buy a gun. You can’t vote, marry, or get a tattoo (my own daughter, after a year of much tearful sturm and drang about the injustice of it all, had to wait until she was 18 to get that tattoo, which she then spent thousands of dollars to have removed when she was in her clear-sighted 30s).
As a society we collectively recognize that the great majority of 17-year-olds are too psychologically and emotionally immature to be handed a master key to adulthood. In one of its publications the ACLU quotes studies by the Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health and the UCLA's Department of Neuroscience, which collectively found that:
The frontal and pre-frontal lobes of the brain, which regulate impulse control and judgment, are not fully developed in adolescents. Development is not completed until somewhere between 18 and 22 years of age. These findings confirm that adolescents generally have a greater tendency towards impulsivity, making unsound judgments or reasoning, and are less aware of the consequences of their actions.
This is hardly news for parents who have raised teenagers, but bears a reminder as more and more minors are tried as adults in this country. As of this writing some 250,000 juveniles are tried as adults every year in the U.S., and three states – Georgia, Texas, and Wisconsin – still try juveniles as adults at 16, though they are no longer executed.
Those still touting American exceptionalism might do well to note that, prior to the 2005 United States Supreme Court ruling Roper v. Simmons, which on a now-familiar 5-4 vote banned the execution of juveniles who committed their crimes before they were 18, only the United States and Iran still engaged in that barbaric practice – and Iran beat the U.S. in drafting its own law banning it beginning in 2003. The justices of the U.S. high court who voted to ban the practice wrote in the majority decision that the juvenile death penalty was “inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.”
Look, everybody knows that teenagers regrettably often make poor choices and should suffer some consequence for them. But they’re still kids, not mini-adults, no matter how sophisticated or reasonable they may appear on their surface. As Nature intended, juveniles are a dynamic stew of great energy, impulsivity, and raging hormones.
One of my best friend’s sons, who is now a prosecutor, crashed his car while he was driving home drunk at 16. Another had multiple DUIs. These are of course non-capital offenses but nevertheless serious events that require remedial actions both for the offender and for society at large. Fortunately, most of even the wildest kids eventually grow up to become responsible adults.
This biological reality is something to keep in mind when juveniles are tried as adults for their alleged crimes. I thought of it as the recent Kyle Rittenhouse wrongful death trial dragged on in the news. It was automatically tut-tuttingly reported in the liberal media as a black/white event, but the victims were white and the accused was white. Before jurors even heard all the evidence (and jurors are the only ones who hear all the evidence), opinionated media pundits were predicting dark days of murder and mayhem in American cities if Rittenhouse were acquitted. There were many societal issues at play in this case: how Rittenhouse came to possess an assault rifle, how he wandered across a state line to “volunteer” for crowd control during a peaceful demonstration, how any of this even seemed like a good idea to the 17-year-old suburban lifeguard. There is no question that he shot and killed the victims. But the jury believed his claim of self defense and acquitted him of murder, undoubtedly reasoning, at least in part, that he was a terrified kid.