America can't make up its mind. This should not be surprising in a nation of 314 million people, half of whom can't make up their minds about what to have for dinner. But dinner is inconsequential. How we treat children is not. And when it comes to the treatment of children, society's approach is wildly incoherent.
Last week the Supreme Court ruled, correctly but far from unanimously, that mandatory life sentences without parole for juvenile killers are wrong. That ruling followed another two years ago saying the same thing about crimes other than homicide. Five years before that, the Supreme Court ruled against executing juveniles.
These wise rulings build on our growing understanding of the adolescent brain and how long it takes to reach full development. Advances in neuroscience show that in a host of areas from impulse control to thrill-seeking, humans do not reach full maturity until their early 20s. (Some never do.) So executing teenagers for serious crimes is like spanking toddlers for wetting the bed. Yes, they should know better – but there is more to the question than that.
Meanwhile, more and more children are being arrested and charged with criminal offenses for behavior that used to earn them detention – or less. Twelve-year-old Sarah Bustamantes was arrested at Fulmore Middle School in Austin, Texas, a while back because she sprayed perfume on herself after being told, "you smell." According to a study of the Texas educational system, more than 1,000 pupils have been hauled into court for offenses as minor as "making an unreasonable noise." In one instance, a pupil was arrested for throwing a paper airplane.
You might think: Well, that's Texas for you; they're old-school down there. But it's the same story in many parts of the country. The Justice Department says roughly half of all public schools have police officers patrolling the halls. According to an ACLU study, law enforcement is replacing traditional school discipline in Massachusetts' three largest school districts – Boston, Springfield, and Worcester – where more arrests are being made for "misbehavior previously handled informally."
State officials don't have to agree with the Supreme Court's view of adolescence. But they ought to be able to agree with themselves. Yet in many cases, they do not. Take Texas. Not only does Texas slap kids with criminal charges for classroom antics, it also allows children as young as 14 to be charged as adults for certain felonies. On the other hand, Texas sets the age of consent for sexual activity at 17. This means that, in the Lone Star state's eyes, a 16-year-old is a fully culpable adult if he robs a gas station – but a defenseless child if he loses his virginity.
What's more, Texas also requires both parental notification and consent before a minor can have an abortion. So in the state's eyes, some 14-year-0lds who commit crimes have the maturity and judgment of fully grown adults, but no 17-year-old has the maturity and judgment to make a medical decision for herself. Those two positions cannot be reconciled.
Texas isn't alone. Virginia law takes the same two positions. In Mississippi, children as young as 13 can be tried as adults not only for violent felonies, but for any criminal offenses whatsoever – and they must be tried as adults for some felonies, including capital crimes. But both parents must agree before a Mississippi girl just shy of her 18th birthday can have an abortion. In Kansas, the discrepancy is even more stark: 17-year-olds must obtain consent from both parents for an abortion, and the age of sexual consent is 16 – but children can be charged as adults for any sort of crime starting at age 10.
Some of this incoherence is driven by ideology: Parental-consent laws are as much about hostility to abortion as they are about concern for young women. Some of it is driven by experience: Events such as the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School have encouraged a get-tough-on-crime approach in the schools.
And after several high-profile suicides such as those of Jamey Rodemeyer and Phoebe Prince, who were bullied until they couldn't take it any more, it has become apparent that childish behavior still can have horrific consequences. (Hence every state except Montana now has a state anti-bullying law.) The recent harassment of New York bus monitor Karen Klein and a general coarsening of adolescent culture also contribute to public support for tougher discipline. Many Americans clearly think the kids are not alright. Now if only they could decide who they think "the kids" are.
A. Barton Hinkle is a columnist at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, where this article originally appeared.