Saturday, December 7, 2013

Incomplete Thoughts on Age and Rights

One morning I woke up thinking about legal standards for my ideal society, particularly when it comes to age. When should rights and responsibilities apply?

The U.S. system had a period of 10–15 years when almost all laws said you became an adult at 18: As of 1972, you could vote, marry, sign a contract, enlist in the military, and drink alcohol. And very few people under 18 who committed a crime were treated as adults.

That all changed with the forced change in the drinking age to 21 and the general overreaction to crime, pushing treatment of juveniles into adult courts in far too many cases. Yet you can't get a rental car until you're 25. And recent research on the brain and maturity casts doubt on whether 18 or even 21 is the age of maturity, on average. At the same time, we infantalize teenagers unncessarily.

So why not create a more pro-rated system?

This is just a sketch, though. I've probably forgotten something important or written something that's completely hare-brained.

Note: An assumption underlying my outline of rights is that the ideal society would also decriminalize all drugs, while offering treatment within a single-payer, universal health care system.

0 – 15: child status

  • Criminal treatment — no incarceration, only supportive treatment
  • Recommend that 14- and 15-year-olds be given previews of their approaching rights, akin to the way a driver's permit works with driving.
  • Work under 20 hours a week with parents' permission at age 14 (lower ages allowed for children who are part of a family-owned and -occupied farm).
16 – 24: youth status
  • Right to vote — 16
  • Drive — 16 with a provisional license for one year. If licensed later, at age 18–21, six months provisional. Provisional means only one other person in the car, no driving between midnight and 5:00 a.m. (Of course, in my ideal society many fewer people will get a driver's license because there will be free public transit!)
  • Consume alcohol and other impairing substances — 16. After one DUI, return driver's license to provisional, after second DUI revoke the license (applies to 25+ too). If the DUI occurs under a provisional license, revoke the license for one year. Revocations after a second DUI are only restored after proof of treatment and being sober for some prescribed amount of time.
  • Criminal treatment — use restorative justice, empathy building, and alternative sentencing. Only incarcerate in youth-segregated facilities for violent crimes when there are no mitigating circumstances (rape, murder, aggravated assault). Everyone has fair and full representation in court, innocent until proven guilty.
  • Sexual consent — 16
  • Adult-restricted content — 16
  • Medical decisions — 16 (possibly some decisions limited... such as sterilization?)
  • Marriage — starter marriages at 16 that have to be reaffirmed or dissolved at 25. No community property until 25. Children are discouraged in starter marriages, but if born, both parents have automatic joint custody unless there is proven abuse (physical or emotional).
  • Work 30 hours or more a week — 16. 
  • The ability to make legal decisions for yourself begins incrementally. For instance, you can sign contracts with no more than one year's effect (such as a lease or work contract) up until age 20, no more than three years' effect from 21–24 (with executive function testing to allow full rights at 20?).
  • Debt incursion — similar to the ability to sign contracts. You can't incur debt until 25, or possibly only small amounts allowed until 20, slightly larger amounts 21–24. 
25+: adult status
  • Smoke — 25 (does this make sense? is the strong addictiveness of tobacco enough of a reason to make this the only drug that's not allowed at 16?)
  • Volunteer in military (with executive function testing to allow early entry at 20 or 22?)
  • Conscription (if it exists at all in my ideal society)
  • You can make any decision for yourself that doesn't harm someone else (i.e., your rights terminate where your fist ends and my nose begins)
There would need to be some category for vulnerable adults, such as the brain-damaged woman who was selling off her personal injury settlement money for pennies on the dollar.

I realize it sounds like I'm considering having a test of executive function to prove you're an adult, and that this appears contradictory to my usual thoughts on testing (in education, for instance). Not to mention the fact that finding a test of executive function that can't be easily subverted may be a challenge.

There would be all sorts of legal repercussions to changes like these. This is just a thought experiment. There are probably scholars who've worked out all of this, so let me know if you've read such a thing.

Or maybe I should just write a science fiction story that takes place in such a place. Hmmm.

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