When does a kid become an adult?
Does it magically happen on their 18th birthday? When they graduate from high school? When they get their first job? When they’re financially independent of their parents?
Here in Nebraska, and throughout the United States, our laws often struggle to answer that question and they often contradict each other.
Take the age of majority for example. While in most states 18 years-old is the magic number, here in Nebraska we don’t consider children to be “adults” until 19. And even then there are still things that we don’t allow young people to do. For example, you have to wait until 21 to legally consume alcohol.
Even more contradictory, though, are those places in the law that treat actual kids (under 18) just like adults.
Throughout the month of November, we’re taking a closer look at kids in Nebraska’s adult criminal justice system. Unfortunately, the justice system if one of those places where kids miraculously transform into adults.
So just what has to happen in order for a kid to become an adult in the eyes of the justice system?
Unfortunately, it’s really not that difficult in Nebraska. It boils down to three main things:
- The kind of crime committed by a child. Whether they’re 10 or 17, if a kid in Nebraska commits a felony (a more serious category of crime), Nebraska law says that they can always be processed through the adult criminal court system. And to be clear, felonies aren’t just violent crimes. Take one example: applying graffiti. Traffic offenses also always open youth in Nebraska up to being treated exactly the same way as adults.
- The age of a child. If you’re 16 or 17-years old in Nebraska, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, you have a good chance of being treated just like an adult. Under Nebraska law, once you reach your 16th birthday any type of crime can land you in the adult criminal justice system. Ironically, this means you can end up in the adult criminal justice system for doing things that actually aren’t illegal for adults – like smoking a cigarette or possessing alcohol.
- What the prosecutor handling the case wants to do. While the age and the type of crime a child commits open them up to being treated like adults, it is ultimately the prosecutor’s (county attorney’s) decision whether to file the case in juvenile or adult court in Nebraska. We are one of only 2 states that puts this decision solely in the hands of the prosecutor, rather than the juvenile court judge (you can read more about what other states do here).Once the prosecutor has made the decision to file a case against a kid in adult court, a judge can make the decision to transfer the case down to juvenile court. This process often takes time, however, and youth lose access to many of the benefits they would have had – like a guaranteed right to an attorney and developmentally appropriate, rehabilitative services.
So which kids are in the adult court system? We’re currently digging into the 2012 numbers, but some analysis from last year shows it’s usually 16 and 17-year-olds who have committed minor crimes. These kids are missing the opportunity to access the services and supports built just for them.
So when do you think the justice system should treat a kid like an adult? What do you think of how Nebraska’s is structured? Leave us your thoughts in the comments below and stay tuned as we look at the consequences of adult court involvement later this week.