Criminal Justice and the Young


To the Editor:

Don’t Treat Young Adults as Teenagers,” by Laurence Steinberg, Thomas Grisso, Elizabeth S. Scott and Richard J. Bonnie (Sunday Review, May 1), opposes a positive trend in justice policy. The writers — all accomplished scholars — support the 19th-century idea that legal distinctions between children and adults may be determined using a single, magic birthday.

They prefer to define adulthood at 18 rather than 21, but why not 16 or 19?

Lawmakers in Connecticut, Illinois and Vermont are trying to end this 19th-century thinking and to bring their legal systems in line with modern science showing that young people acquire adultlike judgment gradually during the teenage years and well into the early 20s.

The writers acknowledge this body of science. Yet for some reason they place a greater value on administrative convenience.

Managing a truly developmental justice system, they argue, would just be too arduous. Instead, they settle for magic birthdays, with 18 as the decisive demarcation. This is a political judgment, not science.


Director, Research and Evaluation Center
John Jay College of Criminal Justice
New York