When does someone become an adult, capable of making adult decisions and fully responsible for the consequences when they make poor choices? In the United States, the number that we’ve chosen is age 18. This is the age of legal adulthood in most respects.
But should it be? As brain science continues to advance, there is growing evidence that the brains of people aged 18-21 still look a lot like the brains of young teenagers – particularly when it comes to skills like self-control and emotional regulation. This raises a number of questions about how young offenders should be treated in the criminal justice system.
Two justice systems with significant differences
Every state in the nation, including New Jersey, has a criminal justice system for adults and a separate one for juveniles. The philosophy behind the juvenile justice system is that young people, because they are still growing and developing, are both less culpable for the crimes they commit and more capable of reform. Those two ideas have only been strengthened by advances in brain research.
That being said, there are at least two major problems with how we approach juvenile justice. The first is that it is unevenly applied. Many young offenders are tried as adults, not because of their age but because of the severity of their crimes.
The second problem is deciding when juvenile offenders generally stop being juveniles and become adults. Currently, adulthood begins at age 18, but we are now learning that the important skills and behaviors young people need to be responsible adults may not develop until their early 20s.
Should our justice system change as our understanding of brain science changes? And if so, how? These are difficult questions to answer, and if change does occur, it is likely decades away.
All young people charged with a crime need experienced defense representation
The juvenile justice system may be more forgiving than the adult one, but if you are a young person or the parent of young person charged with a crime, you can’t afford to assume that things will work out. Instead, please seek the help and guidance of an experienced criminal defense attorney.