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How the Law Treats Kids Who Didn’t Grow Up Like Kavanaugh

September 25, 2018

The judge’s allies should ask themselves if young offenders in general deserve more leniency.

This commentary was originally published in The Atlantic.


The scene is familiar: loud music, no parents, and beer. Christine Blasey Ford alleges that, in a Bethesda home in 1982, when she was in high school, then 17-year-old Brett Kavanaugh tried to rape her. Kavanaugh categorically denies the accusation. His staunchest defenders say that, even if the accusation is true, his behavior as a young man should not derail his path to the Supreme Court.

Yet the repercussions many young people—particularly low-income youth of color—might face for the kind of conduct described by Ford are far more severe than a failed nomination. Our current laws and practices ensure that adolescent mistakes have lifelong consequences. People too young to buy cigarettes are regularly subject to adult punishments. There are roughly 1,000 people under 18 in adult prisons, and thousands more over that age serving time for offenses committed in their teenage years.

I don’t mean to adjudicate Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, or to judge his qualifications for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. But maybe Kavanaugh’s allies should take this moment to ask themselves if youthful offenders in general deserve more leniency.

Yet the repercussions many young people—particularly low-income youth of color—might face for the kind of conduct described by Ford are far more severe than a failed nomination. Our current laws and practices ensure that adolescent mistakes have lifelong consequences. People too young to buy cigarettes are regularly subject to adult punishments. There are roughly 1,000 people under 18 in adult prisons, and thousands more over that age serving time for offenses committed in their teenage years.

I don’t mean to adjudicate Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, or to judge his qualifications for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. But maybe Kavanaugh’s allies should take this moment to ask themselves if youthful offenders in general deserve more leniency.

Yet the repercussions many young people—particularly low-income youth of color—might face for the kind of conduct described by Ford are far more severe than a failed nomination. Our current laws and practices ensure that adolescent mistakes have lifelong consequences. People too young to buy cigarettes are regularly subject to adult punishments. There are roughly 1,000 people under 18 in adult prisons, and thousands more over that age serving time for offenses committed in their teenage years.

I don’t mean to adjudicate Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, or to judge his qualifications for a lifetime appointment to the highest court in the land. But maybe Kavanaugh’s allies should take this moment to ask themselves if youthful offenders in general deserve more leniency.

Convictions in adult courts, even if they don’t lead to prison, have long-lasting consequences. Almost 20 million Americans have felony convictions, impeding their opportunities for employment and housing, and even their ability to vote in many states. People convicted of sex-related offenses may spend their whole lifetimes on a sex-offender registry—and that’s a broad category including not only rape, but also non-violent offenses such as exhibitionism.

Kids who grow up like Kavanaugh—white kids whose parents can afford prep school tuition and, presumably, the services of a good lawyer—rarely experience prolonged contact with the criminal-justice system. Society gives them the benefit of the doubt and takes seriously their protestations of innocence. But most kids don’t grow up like Kavanaugh.

Josh Rovner is the Senior Advocacy Associate at The Sentencing Project.

 
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