Government gives mixed signals on when young people become adults, says Governing magazine. The most glaring examples come from the criminal justice system. A spike in juvenile violence two decades ago spurred state legislators to adopt the mantra “adult time for adult crimes.” In most states, a 10-year-old charged with murder can be tried as an adult. 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 to be moved to adult prisons.
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. Tough policies toward juveniles remain prevalent, but a few states have begun loosening up. In 2005, 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. Still, there's no telling when a high-profile teen crime may catch the attention of cable news. “If we have another crime wave for whatever reason,” says Shay Bilchik, of the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform, “it will be very difficult to resist going back to lock ’em up.”