What is the Age of Responsibility?

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Education levels of U.S. immigrants are on the rise

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The most glaring examples lie within the criminal justice system. A spike in juvenile violence two decades ago spurred state legislators to adopt the mantra "adult time for adult crimes.

Slightly older teens can be tried in adult courts for virtually every other crime. Even when states wait until 18 to treat criminals as adults, they don't like to wait long. Until recently, inmates at youth detention facilities in New Mexico were woken up just one minute after midnight on their 18th birthdays, in order to be moved to adult prisons. Recently, many of these lines drawn between adolescence and maturity have been called into question.

For example, the presidents of universities are campaigning to consider lowering the drinking age from They note that binge drinking on campus is rampant despite the stricture, and argue that if students were given the right to drink at an earlier age, they might handle it more responsibly. Another argument is a reprise of the one that came up 40 years ago when servicemen came home from Vietnam. Then, the complaint was that soldiers were old enough to die but not to vote.

The 26th Amendment took care of that problem by lowering the voting age to Today, military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are left to question why they can fight America's wars but still can't patronize its bars.

Meanwhile, legislatures and courts are hearing a very different argument from a group of people that haven't traditionally testified before them: Using advanced brain-scanning technology, scientists are getting a better view of how the human brain develops than ever before.

And what they've found is that in most people, the prefrontal cortex and its links to other regions of the brain are not fully formed until age much later than anyone had realized. These areas are the seat of "executive decision making"--the parts of the brain that allow people to think through the likely consequences of an action, weigh the risks and benefits and stop themselves from acting on impulse.

In other words, the stuff that makes you a mature person. To state and local lawmakers and judges, the brain research can come as a revelation: Maybe the car-rental companies were right all along.

What to do about this is another matter. In America, "adulthood" already has its familiar compass points, 18 and But what is the age of responsibility? And what if that age--the point when citizens are responsible enough to earn all of the rights a democracy confers upon its people--bears no resemblance to the ages already enshrined in law? Finding the answers to those questions is a more complicated task than simply choosing a milestone birthday.

The age at which children are considered mature is rooted in a mix of culture, convenience and historical precedent. Aristotle wrote of 21 as the age when a person would have completed three 7-year stages of youth development. During the Middle Ages, legend has it that 21 was considered the age of adulthood because that's when men were capable of wearing a full suit of armor.

Arbitrary as such reasoning may sound to modern Americans, 21 stuck as a threshold age through the 19th century and into the 20th. Until they turned 21, young people owed their parents either their labor or their wages, whether that meant working on the family farm or operating a machine in an urban factory and handing over their pay. But during the Progressive Era, reform efforts and adolescent research began to change notions about growing up. States, and eventually the federal government, enacted child-labor laws, keeping kids from working and ultimately making their attendance in high school compulsory.

Such laws were opposed by business groups, which hated to let go of the cheap labor, and supported by unions, which didn't like the cheaper competition. Through the middle of the 20th century, the onset of adulthood seemed to come earlier and earlier. War was partly responsible for that, as year-olds went off to fight in World War II, followed by the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

On the home front, manufacturing jobs didn't require a high-school diploma. It was thus common for year-olds to support themselves and start their own families. And the rise of youth culture in the s and 60s turned the teen years into their own distinctive stage of development--and consumer spending.

There was a new sense that reaching the end of this life phase was a rite of passage in and of itself. Nowadays, teens face more cultural pressure than ever to grow up fast, in certain ways. Recent controversies over whether year-old pop star Miley Cyrus has sexualized her image is the latest symptom of that. Yet there's a strong pull in exactly the opposite direction, too.

Many more year-olds are choosing college over work now than a generation or two ago. They live independently at school for part of the year but under their parents' roofs for the rest. People are getting married later than they used to, and many have become slower about starting their own careers. Even before the current recession, plenty of college grads and dropouts had "boomeranged" back to Mom and Dad's house. Sociologists now talk of "extended adolescence" and "delayed adulthood.

That means that the window of time during which teens and young adults "grow up" is opening wider. This partly explains why state and local governments are so haphazard when it comes to young people: The law, and the people who write and interpret it, are just as befuddled about how to handle this situation as any anxious parent.

Mostly, they have responded by cracking down. On an annual basis, the number of laws regulating the behavior of people under 18 has more than tripled since the s. Curfews are now common. Recently, states have banned minors from purchasing items such as nitrous-oxide inhalants and fruit-flavored mini-cigars.

Various jurisdictions have restricted "sexting"--sending lewd photos via cell phones. And 20 states ban only those under 18 from talking on cell phones while driving, despite evidence that the behavior even using a hands-free device is treacherous among drivers of all ages.

So there is a bit of hypocrisy, too, in the way governments define the age of responsibility. While nearly every state recently has put new limits on teen drivers, no state has begun restricting--or even testing--elderly drivers, some of whom may, like teens, lack mastery of their vehicles.

Franklin Zimring, a UC Berkeley law professor, suggests that it's easier to block youngsters from obtaining rights than it is to take away rights to which adults have grown accustomed. That's because states aren't really denying young people rights, Zimring says.

They're asking them to wait. As Jack McCardell sees it, the wait can be counterproductive. McCardell is the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont.

He's also the leader of the group of college presidents calling for a national debate about the drinking age. Technically, states hold the power to set their own drinking ages. But since the mids, Congress has all but required the age to be set at If states were to set it any lower, they would forfeit 10 percent of their federal highway funds. McCardell points to surveys showing that upwards of 90 percent of young people have had drinks or gotten drunk before turning Those numbers only confirm what everyone knows--that binge drinking is out of control on college campuses.

Of the current drinking age, McCardell says, "it's pretty hard to argue on the most basic terms that it's been at all successful, given the number who continue to consume. McCardell believes that the current laws not only are ineffective and unenforceable but are in fact leading students to drink more heavily in illicit and unsafe circumstances.

The problem, he says, is that underage kids don't actually consider themselves underage. McCardell believes this is a direct consequence of the mixed messages states send teenagers about responsibility. A half-dozen states have taken McCardell up on the challenge of at least debating the idea of lowering the drinking age.

But McCardell is the first to admit that none of them will ever pass legislation as long as a big chunk of their highway dollars is at risk.

In fact, if there's any trend among states, it's to crack down further on drinking by those under age States have created new keg-registration requirements, stepped up enforcement of carding at convenience stores and passed "social host" laws that impose liability on adults who serve alcohol to teens at parties.

Some supporters of holding the drinking age steady acknowledge that 21, when it comes right down to it, is an arbitrary age. Twenty-five might be better, if unrealistic. But they argue that enforcement is a problem at any age, and lowering the legal limit to 18 would only mean pushing the drinking problem further down to and year-olds. Alexander Wagenaar, a health policy professor at the University of Florida, goes further.

He believes that lowering the drinking age would be disastrous. After states set the age at 21, he says, teen highway deaths immediately dropped by 15 to 20 percent. The debate about drinking hinges on the question of whether the age of responsibility has been set too high.

But in the juvenile justice world, a parallel debate has been going on about whether the age of responsibility has been set too low.

In the early 20th century, every state created stand-alone legal systems for handling juveniles, defined as those under Advocates of that era described the states as "a sheltering wise parent" that would shield a child from the rigors of criminal law. By the s, however, the idea that rehabilitating such offenders should be the main goal of the system had lost credibility.

Due to a spike in juvenile homicides involving handguns--and concerns that young "superpredators" presented an extreme and growing danger to society--legislators passed countless laws that made it easier to try minors as adults.

This was true not only for serious matters such as murder and drug crimes but also for minor infractions and misdemeanors. Some plea bargains are available to teens only if they agree to adult handling. Specific numbers are hard to come by, but on any given day, an estimated 10, minors are housed in adult facilities. Now, states are just starting to rethink the wisdom of sending year-olds to spend hard time among older, more experienced criminals.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, youths who had previously been tried as adults are 34 percent more likely to commit a crime again than those who went through the juvenile justice system. Not only do young offenders treated as adults reoffend sooner and more frequently, they're also more likely to go on to commit violent crimes.

On this matter, states are finding, nothing is more persuasive than crime data. Despite all the media attention given years ago to superpredators, the vast majority of youth crimes involve property theft and drugs and seldom involve murder.

And while there are still roughly , juveniles tried each year, the rate of crime for this cohort, as measured by arrests, has gone down in each of the past 15 years. Tough policies toward juveniles remain prevalent, but a few states have begun loosening up. In , Illinois ended its policy of automatically transferring juvenile misdemeanor cases to adult courts, leaving the decision up to judges.

A follow-up study found a dramatic drop in the number of cases referred to adult court, suggesting that most of the old automatic transfers had not involved serious crimes. As of January 1, Connecticut will end its policy of treating all offenders 16 and up as adults. A similar proposal in North Carolina stalled this summer.

While the latest research and crime statistics have opened up room for a fresh debate about juvenile justice, that space could evaporate at any time. There's no telling when a high-profile teen crime may catch the attention of cable news. It's precisely because policy toward teens can be so random and emotionally charged that some people find the discoveries about brain development reassuring.

The brain scans are putting hard science behind what anyone who has raised an adolescent knows--that young people simply aren't always capable of making good decisions. Increasingly, this scientific evidence is being introduced in regard to juvenile justice. In , the U. Supreme Court struck down the juvenile death penalty after receiving stacks of briefs summarizing the latest adolescent brain research.

To be truly self-watering, the system should store water and automatically add more upon demand. The process works even when you're away for a time. I've seen SIPs that include a float valve which recharges the water reservoir automatically. Such systems truly are self-watering! Technically a gardener could devise a "self-watering" system that isn't sub-irrigated. Is a sprinkler or soaker hose considered a self-watering system? Technology has advanced to the point that electronic moisture sensors can send a signal to a computerized water timer which then activates your watering system as needed.

But SIPs are the ideal solution when dealing with containers. The water reservoir is placed directly below the soil container, merging it into a self-contained system.

You water the reservoir sub-irrigation then the soil or a piece of fabric "wicks" up the water self-watering as needed. An air pocket separates the soil and water, allowing the roots to receive oxygen. It might seem complex, but trust me, this is easy gardening! If you're in the market for a self-watering, sub-irrigated container, you have 2 initial choices: To help you evaluate your options, take some time to examine this chart of SIPs: Besides price, there are other factors when evaluating a self-watering system: This will have a large bearing on the types of vegetables you can grow.

Don't expect to grow 8" carrots in a City Pickers that only gives you 6. A self-watering container with more surface area, might be a good choice for lettuce, spinach or strawberries. Larger plants like tomatoes will need more growing medium to reach full potential.

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However, a vigilant gardener will still want to be outside looking over his or her plants each and every day. Your potting mix formulation is absolutely critical if you hope to find success with your sub-irrigated planter. The above chart shows an example of a potting mix that should do well for SIPs. This merely shows the type of components and a basic ratio for mixing them.

There are many possibilities. The key is to select base components that are intended for container use as a potting mix. You can start with a retail potting mix and enhance it as desired. Or simply mix your own from scratch. At one point, EarthBOX had compiled a list of approved mixes.

It should be light and fluffy when dry, and spongy when wet. It should NOT contain any rock, clay, or sand. You should also avoid using topsoil or compost. However, that same mix must be porous so as to provide proper aeration to plant roots perlite or growstones. Also you should have enough drainage for excess rain water to escape down into the water reservoir. Are you wondering how to fertilize such systems?

2. Creating a ceiling, not a floor