Statistical Bigotry

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From the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month abolishing capital punishment for juveniles, to the latest media crusade to banish 16-year-old drivers, to opposition to lowering the voting age in California or the drinking age in Vermont, we hear a standard refrain: The teenage brain is developmentally unable to handle risk or responsibility.

True, abolishing capital punishment for juveniles is a small victory for death penalty opponents, global evolution of legal standards against a brutal and discriminatory state practice, and (perhaps) a few teen killers who will spend 60 years in prison rather than face execution.

But it came at the unacceptable price of the court’s endorsement of ugly, long-debunked “biodeterminism” prejudices against adolescents that menace the fundamental rights of young people. The patently irrational arguments by both sides over whether Americans should be executed for crimes they commit before age 18 could be summed up as, “Our teens: willfully cold-blooded killers, or helplessly deranged psychopaths?”

The court majority accepted the latter view, pushed by lawyers for convicted teen murderer Christopher Simmons, that all juveniles can be presumed constitutionally incompetent. “The instability and emotional imbalance of young people may often be a factor in the crime,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.

This is a finding advanced by progressive death penalty opponents such as Amnesty International, the Brennan Center and the Justice Policy Institute, often using inflammatory language to depict youths as hair-trigger, natural-born killers helpless to resist violent impulses, malign peer pressures and hormonally driven mayhem. (See “Bio-illogical,” Youth Today, February 2003.) Such notions have been solidly refuted by decades of careful cognitive studies comparing adolescent and adult decision-making – including liberals’ own MacArthur Foundation-funded report in 2003, “Juvenile Competence to Stand Trial,” which found teens as competent as adults in legal settings.

But, casting aside American history’s frightening lessons on how biodeterminism creates race and gender hierarchies, liberal groups rushed to embrace dubious claims by a handful of scientists who combine brain neuroimaging with personal bigotries to claim that adolescents are biologically wired for irresponsible behavior.

In a particularly rash statement belying his own assertions of reasoned grownup maturity, Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health argues that “brain anatomy” justifies stripping away the rights of people under age 25. Of course, he doesn’t mention more compelling studies (see Nature, June 2004) showing that adult brains deteriorate rapidly, producing significant learning and memory impairment by age 40.

Liberals, of course, reject teen-incompetence arguments when courts and lawmakers apply them to subject millions of adolescents to mandatory adult consent for abortions, abstinence-only sex education, harsh penalties for trivial offenses, sweeping race-based juvenile curfews and drug tests in schools. Conservatives, in turn, reject the incompetence arguments in order to try youths as adults and execute juveniles, while imposing one-size-fits-all restrictions on teens solely because of their age.

The latest blowup over 16-year-old drivers illustrates the unreasoning nature of age-based prejudices. Psychologist Marvin Zuckerman, accusing teens of rampant “sensation seeking” involving an innate desire to take risks and act impulsively, advocates banning driving until age 21.

If teens are innately risky, why do the vast majority of even their youngest, most inexperienced driving cohort, 16-year-olds, survive? National Highway Traffic Safety Administration figures show that of every 10,000 16-year-old drivers, 9,997 will not cause a fatal crash, 9,700 will not cause an accident producing even a minor injury, and 8,500 will not be in so much as a fender-bender. If Zuckerman and other experts feel that’s undue risk, would they also advocate banning men from driving until they’re 50 – the age at which men’s per-driver risk of causing a deadly crash drops below that of teenage girls?

This selective “statistical bigotry” can be used to justify mass restrictions on just about any group in society based on the rare behaviors of a few of its members. But when anyone suggests restricting adults on such a basis, the idea is immediately dismissed. Not one “safety expert” I’m aware of advocates adopting a zero blood-alcohol level standard for adult drivers, despite the fact that drivers over age 21 (a large proportion of them drunk) killed 2,200 teenagers in 2003.

All sides treat youths as a commodity whose image can be manipulated to suit our immediate agendas – hardly the developed, long-term thinking or genuine concern for youth safety that we adults credit ourselves with.