Why they're called kids

May 31, 2004

IT SOUNDS at first like yet another example of researchers telling the world what anybody with any sense already knew. Or, at least in this case, what long-suffering parents of teenagers already knew: Different parts of the brain mature at different stages, and the part that governs complex functions such as reasoning and judgment matures last of all - usually between the ages of 18 and 21.

But the new study, conducted by researchers at the National Institute of Mental Health and announced this month, provides more than a "well, duh" moment for the moms, dads and teachers who needed no scientific proof that even a 6-foot-tall 17-year-old still has a lot of growing up to do.

It offers sound scientific reasoning for treating juveniles differently from adults in our courts and in our jails.

Society has long recognized that young people - generally those under the age of 18 - lack the experience, judgment and plain good sense of their elders. That is why they cannot legally buy alcohol or cigarettes, why they cannot see certain movies, why they cannot sign legally binding contracts. Because they're still kids.

Just over 100 years ago, the justice system recognized this fundamental difference between youngsters and adults with the founding of the first children's court, in Chicago. That became the model for a juvenile justice system that spread across the nation, grounded in the sensible and humane philosophy that children accused of crimes must be held to a lesser standard of accountability than adults, and that if found culpable, must be sentenced differently as well, with a goal of rehabilitation.

In the last 12 years or so, states increasingly have chipped away at the foundations of the juvenile justice system. The ages at which young people could be transferred to adult court were lowered, the categories of crimes for which youths were automatically transferred to adult courts were expanded, and the authority of judges in such transfers was significantly diminished in favor of prosecutorial discretion.

As a result, thousands more juveniles are tried in adult court today, and if found guilty they often are housed in adult prisons. The findings of the NIMH study illustrate well why that trend is deeply troubling.

Certainly, there are some teenagers so incorrigible, their crimes so heinous, that rehabilitation in a juvenile setting is not a sensible option. But many thousands of others deserve the special consideration and treatment offered by the juvenile system.

The state of Maryland's juvenile facilities is far from ideal, as this newspaper has reported. But the fate befalling kids who are incarcerated in adult facilities - an estimated 1,000 a year statewide - can be far worse. National studies have shown that juveniles in adult prisons are twice as likely to be physically assaulted, five times as likely to be sexually assaulted and at least eight times as likely to commit suicide as those in juvenile facilities.

In Maryland, anyone 16 or older who is charged with a violent offense, and anyone 14 or older charged with what would be a capital crime for an adult, is automatically transferred to the adult system. There may be cases where that is appropriate, but a judge should make that decision; it should not be up to the prosecutor, and it should not be "automatic."

It's time that the courts remember what parents know - and what scientific research shows: Teenagers literally don't have the brains to be grown-ups.

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