Perceiving Adolescence

By Kevin Lapp, Associate Professor, Loyola Law School|Los Angeles

The challenge of demarcating adolescence from childhood and adulthood comes mainly from figuring out when it ends. 18 has been the traditional end point, but many experts increasingly view adolescence as a period that lasts into the mid-twenties. But extending adolescence beyond 18 is probably less pressing than ensuring that those under 18 receive the protections long reserved for childhood (or adolescence, or “not yet adulthood”).

Advocates have been fighting that fight for decades, w-haywood-burns-instituteand the flourishing of knowledge about adolescent brain developmental and psychosocial research on youth has armed reformers with empirical findings that seemed to have aided their efforts. For example, after upholding the death penalty for 16 and 17 year olds in 1989, the Supreme Court reversed course in 2005 in Roper, striking down the death penalty for those who committed crimes under 18. In Roper, as well as the juvenile justice decisions to follow (Graham, J.D.B., and Miller), the empirics of adolescence played a prominent role. Spurred by these findings, the Supreme Court has repeatedly averred that the law cannot proceed against youth “as though they were not children.”

This has appeal, and works, as a general proposition. But as I’ve noted before, perceptions matter. And there is evidence that some youth are not seen, despite their age, as youth, and thus lose the protections of childhood. This happens in 2 primary ways: (1) racial perceptions, by which minority youth are seen as older than their actual age, and more culpable for their acts, and (2) the forfeiture theory, by which youth who break the law are seen as having forfeited the protections that childhood typically offers.

This post focuses on the link between race, perceptions, and childhood, turning again to psychological studies. UCLA Psychology Professor Phillip Atiba Goff and colleagues tested 176 police officers in large urban areas, mostly white males, average age 37, and 264 mostly white, female undergraduate students from large public U.S. universities, to determine their levels of certain types of bias. They found that, beginning around age 10, Black youth are seen as older than their actual age, and more culpable for the same behavior as same-aged White youth. The age gap was not small: the study found that Black youth were more likely to be mistaken as older than their actual age by an average of 4.5 years. That means that the study participants saw a 14 year-old Black youth as 18-19 years old.

Thus, wherever the line is drawn between childhood and adolescence and adulthood, there’s a good chance that black male youth exit childhood and adolescence sooner, and thus lose the dispensations granted to children much sooner than others. This, I argue in a forthcoming paper called Databasing Delinquency, about the unprecedented adult-like data collection and retention and distribution practices that youth are subjected to these days by the criminal justice system (sex offender registration, gang databases, DNA databases, and more), generates support or tolerance for increased adult-like surveillance and more punitive, adult-like responses to rule-breaking behavior by minority youth.

We can see how this research might undermine the Supreme Court’s strong declarations that childhood cannot be ignored when thinking about the J.D.B. decision. J.D.B. says that police must account for age in determining whether an individual is in custody (and thus must be given Miranda warnings) because youth are much more likely to feel like they’re not free to leave encounters with police than adults. However, J.D.B. says that police must account for age only when “the child’s age was known to the officer at the time of the interview, or would have been objectively apparent to any reasonable officer.” This is easy in the school setting in which J.D.B. arose – unless police are interrogating staff, they are dealing with someone who is not an adult.

But outside the school setting, the skewed perceptions of the age of minority youth could easily lead many police officers to conclude (as those in the Goff study did) that a 15 year-old Black kid is a 19 year old adult. They will then treat the youth as they would an adult, claiming as they did in many cases I litigated in practice that the youth was free to leave the encounter but choose to stay and keep talking. As a consequence, the aim of the J.D.B. court (to get law enforcement to issue Miranda warnings to more youth) will not come to pass.

This research suggests that the Court got the standard wrong in J.D.B. – rather than making the apparent age a critical factor, the Court could have, and should have, said that police must ask the person’s age, and if they determine or are told it’s 17 or under, they must consider youth in determining custody, and issue Miranda warnings before proceeding with custodial questioning. This should be so even if the officer believes the person looks like an adult. Even if the person is actually lying, and is really 19 or 21, there can be little harm in communicating to an adolescent that he has the Constitutional right to remain silent.

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About Tamar Birckhead

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