July 17, 2013

Editorial: Treat children as children


---- — In recent years, scientists have been compiling evidence showing that the human brain isn’t fully evolved until later in life than previously thought.

It is now fully acknowledged that teenage brains aren’t much better equipped to process information and make smart, responsible decisions than a child’s.

In fact, the human brain isn’t really ready to make “adult” choices until well into its 20s – probably 25, or so.

So why are we still holding people in their mid teens accountable for their actions to the same extent that we hold adults?

The sad fact is that New York is one of only two states that holds 16- and 17-year-olds liable under the law as adults. North Carolina is the other.

When a child of 16 in New York state commits a crime, he or she is arrested, arraigned, indicted and tried as an adult.

In the other 48 states, those cases are handled in some form of juvenile court, where the consequences are more sensible — more in line with the kind of crime committed and much more in line with the level of culpability to which the person’s brain should be held.

Jennifer March-Joly is one of the organizers of a coalition of a couple of dozen groups in New York state pushing for a reconsideration of how the state handles adolescent crime. She is strongly emphasizing the change in how science now regards teenage brains and how they are prone to impulsive behavior and a lack of appreciation for consequences.

An impulsive act by a 16-year-old could lead to a lifetime of many decades of imprisonment, a wasted life connected with a brain incapable of sorting out what is right and what isn’t.

Does this mean 16- or 17-year-olds should be free to commit whatever crime crosses their mind?

Of course not, but treating that teenager the same as an adult in criminal court is just plain wrong.

As Westchester County District Attorney Janet DiFiore was quoted as saying in an Associated Press story on the subject last week, “Treating children like children is good for the juveniles, good for families, good for communities, good for public safety and just good common sense.” We couldn’t agree more.

This reform is desperately needed for the sake of fairness. Nothing concrete has yet been proposed, but creative legislation is needed to catch up with the rest of America in the interest of justice and lawfulness.

Keep the public safe at all costs. But handle children who go awry in a way that understands and accommodates their limitations.