Knowing right from wrong: Circular logic in juvenile punishments


I recently read a blog post on the Marshall Project discussing raising the age of criminal liability in several states, including Texas.  The post clearly and concisely laid out the arguments for and against raising the age and advocated strongly in favor of raising the age, and I recommend reading it if you have any interest in this subject.  However, it was not the arguments or the data used as evidence that grabbed my attention but instead it was a by a quote at the end by Texas State Senator John Whitmire.  Whitmire, a Democrat from Houston, responded to a question about pending legislature in Texas that would raise the age by stating, “I think at 17 you should know right from wrong.”  To me, this was in the same vein as my friend’s comment to me a few weeks ago when commenting on the same legislature- “So Texas is going soft on crime?”  To figure out how deep this attitude exists in society, I decided to dig a little deeper into public sentiment in the most obvious and trustworthy of places- anonymous Internet comments.  Here are a few I found-

“i say, adult crimes, adult charges”

“Constantly pandering juvenile offenders only makes the problem worse.”

“The moral of this story is the same as it’s always been; don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

“Nobody made him skip the court hearing – he chose to.  Should he be given a pass because of his age – NO.  Should he be given a pass because of his race – NO.  Should he be given a pass because of his economic situation – NO. 

His age, race and economic situation didn’t make him break laws – he chose to.”

“I hope he gets his life together, but he needs to think before he acts. This particular issue isn’t about race, its about right and wrong”

“Be an adult, take your punishment and learn from it, young man”

“The kid broke the law! The kid tried to avoid taking responsibility for his actions! He needs to be held accountable.”

“Do big boy crime, do big boy time.”

“And the wussufication of America continues. Everyone gets a trophy, even young thugs.”

To be fair, I did cherry pick somewhat from a variety of news articles but I didn’t have to work very hard to do so.  Internet comments are not the best place to gauge public sentiment.  But they do have value in their sheer scale and oftentimes commentators exhibit a brutal honesty that can be a quick and dirty method of figuring out which way large segments of the public feel about a certain topic.   While there were some threads that contained thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments on both sides, it appeared to me that a majority of the comments are similar to those listed above.  What do these comments say about the efforts to #RaisetheAge in Texas and other states?

First, many adults appear to think that it is an action that determines your maturity level.  If a kid can commit a “big boy crime,” then that kid should “do big boy time.”  For me, that argument is circular because it allows an action of a minor that is by definition immature to somehow push the kid into maturity.  The actions of a minor do not determine his maturity level; age, experience, biology, and a myriad of other factors do.  If anything, the action proves the kid has not yet matured, not that his crime somehow gives him the maturity necessary to spend time in an adult prison.

Second, many commentators seem to believe that a punishment that does not involve spending time in an adult prison is not a punishment at all.  They equate spending time in a juvenile prison, or receiving probation, or providing community service, as avoiding responsibility.  Phrases like “pandering” or “wussification” underline a societal attitude that kids have it easy and are soft.

Finally, many comments focused on the choice a kid made in committing a crime.  If he can choose to commit a crime, then he must suffer the consequences.  However, this ignores data cited by the Supreme Court that indicates that 17-year old minors are simply not as capable as adults of making rational and mature “choices.”

#RaisetheAge campaigns might have made some progress in the past few years but if this small selection of comments is any indicator, a broad swath of society might not be on the same page.  Until norms and attitudes change, it could prove very difficult for any legal change to happen and even more difficult for those changes to have any effect.