Aged 11 and 13, Nathaniel Abraham and Nathaniel Brazill were too young to see a standard Hollywood slasher film without adult accompaniment. But they were old enough, when arrested for murder, to be tried as adults.
Douglas Thomas was older--17--when he committed murder. In some states, that’s too young to undergo body piercing without parental consent. In Virginia, that was old enough to send Thomas to the death chamber.
Across America, prosecutors and legislators are pushing to try more juveniles as adults. But, simultaneously, law-abiding adolescents are subject to ever-widening restrictions that treat them explicitly as non-adults--curfews, parental-consent requirements, an array of zero-tolerance policies at schools.
“The kids are being blamed for everything and credited with nothing,” said Jason Zeidenberg, a policy analyst with the Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice in Washington. “Kids today are a scapegoat generation.”
If an 11-year-old can be charged as an adult, as Nathaniel Abraham was in Michigan, and if 20-year-olds are too young to buy beer, who is an adult these days and who isn’t? It depends.
Though 18 is the age most commonly used to define adulthood in America, there is no single, clear-cut “age of majority.” Instead, a welter of federal, state and local laws set widely varying thresholds for young people’s rights and responsibilities.
At 18 they can vote, sign contracts, fight in Army combat units, file lawsuits, decide for themselves about medical treatment. But generally they are still too young to purchase liquor or rent a car.
Girls under 18 can put a baby up for adoption without parental consent, but most states require parents’ involvement before a minor can have an abortion. The legal age of consent for sex ranges from 14 to 18, depending on the state and whether the sexual partner is a peer or an adult.
Traditionally, lawbreakers under 18 were dealt with by juvenile courts. Their names were kept private; sentences were tailored to maximize the chance for rehabilitation.
Over the last decade, however, nearly every state has passed laws making it easier for minors to be tried in adult courts.
Among those states was Michigan, where Nathaniel Abraham faced a possible life sentence during his murder trial a year ago. The judge, assailing a “fundamentally flawed” approach to juvenile justice, instead sentenced the boy to youth detention, with release scheduled when he turns 21.
In Florida, Nathaniel Brazill, now 14, faces trial in March for the fatal shooting of an English teacher at his middle school. Conviction could bring a life prison term.
For a few young offenders, like Douglas Thomas in Virginia, a murder committed as a minor can lead to execution. The Justice Department, in a new report, says 17 men have been executed in the United States since 1973 for crimes committed as juveniles, including Thomas and three others this year. Only the United States and Somalia, among all United Nations members, have not ratified a convention outlawing such executions, the report says.
From his seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court, Justice Larry Starcher is dismayed by the get-tough-on-kids approach.
“It’s the prosecutors’ way to go the easy route and react to the juvenile-crime hysteria that we see pretty much nationwide,” Starcher said in a telephone interview. “Serious juvenile crime has gone down, but public perception is that it’s gone up.”
Starcher’s convictions evolve from personal experience: He was investigated by the FBI as a boy after he and some friends blew up a few mailboxes.
“I was on federal probation when I was 13, and I turned out OK,” he said. “Let’s not drop the ax too early.”
Although acknowledging that some youths commit horrible crimes, Starcher says today’s adolescents overall are no worse than previous generations. The National District Attorneys Assn. suggests otherwise, referring in a policy statement to “a new breed of juvenile delinquent--the serious, violent and habitual juvenile offender.”
“Kids are more prone, with less inhibition, to act violently in more extreme ways then ever in the past,” said the co-chairman of the association’s juvenile justice committee, District Attorney James Backstrom of Dakota County, Minn.
“Instead of resolving their disputes with fists, kids here are using baseball bats and handguns,” he said. “We didn’t see that five years ago in my community.”
Nadine Strossen, a professor at New York Law School and president of the American Civil Liberties Union, said public officials often have their own agendas in mind when they talk about young people.
“For some political purposes it makes sense to demonize them,” she said. “The kids’ own well-being is completely ignored. . . . They’re so easily overlooked because they don’t vote.”
Some public officials are trying to expand young people’s rights. In Cambridge, Mass., for example, the city council is considering lowering the voting age in local elections to 16.
“Those things you start young --whether it’s smoking a cigarette or casting a vote--you tend to end up doing for the rest of your life,” said City Councilor Jim Braude.
In Louisiana, District Judge Preston Aucoin has crusaded for several years against state laws that he says discriminate against young adults aged 18 to 20.
In a case still under litigation, he ruled that gambling regulators could not enforce a 21-year-old minimum age for playing video poker and buying lottery tickets. In another case, he was overruled by the state Supreme Court after quashing a drunken-driving law that sets a lower blood-alcohol threshold for drivers under 21 than for older drivers.
But Aucoin is an exception; so is Cambridge. Hundreds of communities nationwide have moved in the other direction, imposing curfews that barring minors from being on the streets late at night without parental permission. In 1998, according to federal figures, there were 187,000 arrests of juveniles for curfew violations and loitering.
The ACLU has challenged many curfew laws and last year won a case in New Jersey. But state supreme courts in Connecticut and West Virginia recently upheld local curfews.
The West Virginia justices-- with Starcher dissenting--acknowledged that an ordinance in Charleston infringed on some civil liberties, but said the impact was not severe enough to be unconstitutional.
Lenora Lapidus, the ACLU legal director in New Jersey, contended that teen curfews are unconstitutional and ineffective. Most juvenile crime occurs in late afternoon and early evening, not late at night, she said.
“All these curfews do is prevent young people from going places, from being free citizens in our society,” she said.
Backstrom defends curfews, saying they keep young people away from late-night drug parties and other situations that could get them in trouble.
Alarm over drugs and weapons has contributed to the rapid spread of zero-tolerance policies at schools.
Rita Sklar, who heads the ACLU chapter in Arkansas, said students are subjected to random drug testing, searches of backpacks, even checks by sniffer dogs.
“It’s part of the hysteria of the drug war,” she said. “We’re so convinced it’s akin to a nuclear holocaust that we’re willing to do anything. There are very few people who even question it.”
One person who raised questions was James Acton, a 12-year-old in Oregon who is helping the ACLU challenge mandatory drug testing for student athletes in the Vernonia School District.
“Making kids take a drug test without any proof that they are taking drugs is just like searching a house without a warrant or proof of something wrong,” he said.
In Ann Arbor, Mich., parents concerned about the overuse of school suspensions formed a group called the Student Advocacy Center. It supports families whose children have been expelled because of zero-tolerance policies.
“With zero tolerance, the really frightening part is that we don’t even pretend anymore that we are committed to educating all children,” said the center’s director, Ruth Zwifler. “Public education is now only for those who deserve it, and the list of those who don’t deserve is growing.”
“The whole atmosphere at many schools is poisoned,” she said. “We’ve got to open up a discussion with the kids about how to make schools comfortable for them. We’ve got to like our kids. I don’t think we like them at this point.”
National District Attorney’s Assn.:
American Civil Liberties Union: