Guest editorial: When should juveniles be adults?

Gov. Phil Scott’s only veto of the 2021 session is of a bill (S.107) that would raise from 19 to 20 the age before which the identity, arrest and criminal charge of young adults must be kept confidential. 

The governor opposes the bill because it would “raise the age of accountability for crimes and afford young adults protections meant for juveniles, without adequate tools or systems in place for access to rehabilitation services and other supports needed both to hold these young adults accountable and help them stay out of the criminal justice system in the future.”

It’s worth reviewing the history of the age of majority. From the beginning of Vermont, resident persons were declared to be adults (“of age”) at 21 (but females of age were not allowed to vote until 1924).

In early 1971, President Nixon broadened the increasingly unpopular ground war in Southeast Asia by sending U.S. forces into Cambodia. By that time “Johnson’s War” had morphed into “Nixon’s War.” The Democrats were looking hard to find enough votes to unseat Nixon in 1972. Giving the vote to 18-year olds, especially to those (men) facing the military draft, promised huge political gains.

Democrats in control of Congress raced to give the vote to 18-year-olds. State legislatures speedily ratified Amendment 26, which also applied to state and local elections. Vermont’s Legislature hastened to amend state statutes accordingly.

But the Vermont Legislature decided not only to allow 18-year-olds to vote, but to lower the age of majority from 21 to 18, a more sweeping proposition. It meant that 18-year-olds could not only register and cast a ballot, an act with no personal consequences, but would also be propelled into the duties and responsibilities of adulthood.

What is the likelihood that an 18-year-old will comprehend the responsibilities — and possibly unpleasant surprises — of becoming a legal adult?

Can I be forced to honor a contract that I didn’t understand when I signed it? Can someone sue me for a tort? Can I be summoned for jury duty at an inconvenient time and place? Can I legally gamble, and maybe lose my shirt? Will the police be required to identify me upon my arrest or conviction, instead of keeping my records sealed as a juvenile? Can I be sent to a prison with hardened criminals twice my age?

When the House debated the Age of Majority bill in 1972, I proposed to allow 18- to 21-year-olds to affirmatively choose to accept adult status, a status that would be conferred upon them involuntarily at age 21. My argument was that they already had been given the vote; before making the choice of becoming full adults, they would be motivated to think through just what they were getting into.

The “18 age of majority” sponsors weren’t interested in letting young people make any such choice. But they did at least offer that as a debate question for a high school mock legislature program that happened to be visiting the Legislature that week. When that choice was posed to the high schoolers, an interesting debate ensued.

One group, predictably, declared that “As soon as I’m 18, I want it all, whatever that includes.” The other group started thinking about the implications. What exactly am I signing on for? I will already have the vote at 18, but wouldn’t it be better for me to figure the rest of it out for a year or two before taking the plunge?”

The House members on the “18 age of majority” bandwagon were shocked that the “let’s go slow and think this through” group had a clear majority on the final straw vote. Then the legislators went back to the House floor and passed the bill to make age 18 mandatory.

Fourteen years later, the Legislature raised the drinking age from merely adult age (18) to 21. In 2018, it stretched juvenile status in court proceedings to age 19, and a year later it forbade the purchase of tobacco products by anyone, including adults, under 21. Maybe we should have thought all that through in 1972.

In the present instance, the House passed S.107 with a 70% majority, and so there’s a good chance the majority party can override Scott’s veto. A better plan would be to let the veto stand and reach a well-thought-out agreement in 2022, as the governor proposes.

Editor’s note: John McClaughry is vice president of the Ethan Allen Institute and a former Republican Vermont state senator.

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