Cultural shifts and evolving parenting norms have dramatically changed society’s perception and expectations of adolescence and young adulthood. Intensive, highly-protective parenting is now the norm, with parents playing a larger role in late-teens’ and young adults’ lives than ever before. Even the young adults do not perceive themselves to be fully grown-up yet, and do not expect to be fully responsible for themselves, until well into their mid-twenties. Consistent with this, neuroscientists are finding that the relevant brain development is not complete before the age of twenty-five, so it may be unreasonable to expect a late teen to behave like a responsible adult.
Over the same period, however, the criminal justice system has dramatically expanded the prosecution of juveniles as adults. For serious crimes, it is now routine to try and to punish sixteen-year-olds as if they were adults in a highly retributive criminal justice system. The consequence is that these kids do not get a chance at rehabilitation—the primary focus of juvenile courts—and do not get the opportunity to “mature out” of their antisocial behavior.
How can these two trends be reconciled? They share a common root—the perception that the world is a far more dangerous place than it used to be. It leads us to shelter our children from the harsh realities of the world far later into their lives, and at the same time, it causes us to lash out against those who threaten us and our children, including the teen offender. Perhaps most disturbing is the “us versus them” mindset these dissonant attitudes betray. To the extent that “us” includes privileged society with kids bound for college, and “them” includes disenfranchised urban youths with little in the way of prospects or future, present juvenile justice policy can only serve to further divide our society, both socio-economically and racially.
The resolution lies in reexamining the underlying assumptions, for compelling evidence shows that the world is not getting more dangerous for America’s children; in fact the world is safer for kids than ever before, and dramatically so. If baseless perceptions and irrational fears are put to rest, the juvenile justice system can and should regain its focus on reclaiming and rehabilitating wayward kids, rather than binding them over to the highly-retributive adult system that will only give up on their potential and lock them away for the bulk of their lives. To the extent that science and society recognize the appropriateness of delaying adulthood for young people, some of that patience needs to spill over into our treatment of juvenile offenders.