25 Year-Old Adolescents?

imageBy Kevin Lapp, Associate Professor of Law, Loyola Law School|Los Angeles

Adolescents are neither children nor adults. But who falls within the category of adolescents? Given the great advantages of age-based distinctions in clarity and efficiency, when does adolescence start and when does it end?

Adolescence has typically referred to the period between puberty and social and economic independence. In the mid-1800s, that meant adolescence lasted about 5 years. But many things have changed since then. On the front end of adolescence, the age of puberty has declined for both boys and girls. At the back end, more young people than ever go off to college, delaying their entry into the full-time job market. They are getting married later. They’re living with parents longer.

As a result, leading adolescence psychologist Laurence Steinberg maintains that adolescence now covers the period from 10 to 25. That would mean that not only every teenager, but almost every college student, and many law students, are adolescents. In fact, Steinberg predicts that the lengthening of adolescence is likely to continue, and conceiving of adolescence as limited to the teen years will become “more outdated and harmful.” (Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of Adolescence).

There isn’t space in a blog post to debate the length of adolescence (another prominent psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett alternatively talks about “Emerging Adulthood”, by which he means ages 18-25). In any event, it’s almost universally accepted that full development/maturity doesn’t come until the early to mid-twenties. I’m interested in thinking about the implications of the law recognizing a long adolescence, which is decidedly not widely embraced.

First off, it would not mean that all the rights and responsibilities of adulthood are withheld until a person reached 25 or 21 or 18. Whether adolescents requires distinct rules depends on how they are different. And they are different from children and adults in different ways at different ages. For example, by 16, most youth are close to adults in their ability to reason and process information, but they’re bad at deploying those skills when in groups of other teens or stressful situations, in part because they’re more interested in risk and less concerned with long-term consequences. That means that someone who can capably recognize right from wrong may nevertheless be less culpable for their actions than adults.

Indeed, some of the rules governing adolescents would overlap with those for children, and others would overlap with those for adults, depending on what was being regulated. This is, in many ways, the world we have. Young people can’t drive until 16, vote until 18, or drink until 21. But we also seem to allocate rights and responsibilities poorly. A 16 year-old can dangerously drive a car on our highways, and can be tried in adult court for his actions, but is not considered mature enough to handle R-rated movies unless watching with a parent. Paying more attention to how adolescents are different from children and adults would allow us to do a better job of assigning rights and responsibilities to adolescents.

I’ve thought most about the change that a long adolescence would bring to the law with regard to juveniles and criminal law. A long legal adolescence could mean an expanded juvenile court jurisdiction. In most states, jurisdiction ends at 18, though North Carolina and New York send everyone 16 and over to adult criminal court. In a world where adolescence lasts until 25, and where what distinguishes adolescents from adults involves decision-making capacities and attributes that make them less culpable for their acts, we might need to significantly expand juvenile court jurisdiction (or, as Barry Feld argues, provide for a youth discount at sentencing for those processed in criminal court). Similarly, 4th and 5th amendment jurisprudence, and the ability to consent to waiving those rights, probably needs to better account for the age of the person protected by and purportedly waiving those rights.

There are undoubtedly implications of a long legal adolescence in fields like torts, contracts, autonomy rights (including health, speech), family law and the strength and duration of parental rights, and more, but I don’t know them well enough to lay them out. If anyone is willing to indulge me and teach me, how might a long adolescence change the landscape in your field of expertise?

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