Screwing the youth

By BRIAN C. JONES  |  August 20, 2007

No magic line for adulthood
Most experts acknowledge there is no magic dividing line for adulthood, meaning that some people are more mature at 17 than others. Still, they say that the 18-year mark is useful.
That’s the conclusion reached by the US Supreme Court in a 2005 decision, in which it banned the death penalty for felons younger than 18, although it did so in a narrow five-to-four vote, taken when the high court lineup was less conservative.
That decision moved up the age limit for capital punishment from a 1989 ruling that had allowed executions of 16 and 17 year olds. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy wrote the new decision, which noted expert opinion was finding that young people lack maturity and a sense of responsibility.
Kennedy conceded that juveniles don’t instantly turn into adults, at 18, but wrote: “The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood. It is, we conclude, the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest.”
Rhode Island doesn’t have the death penalty, but the move to treat 17-year-olds lawbreakers as adults touches the same issues that divided the Supreme Court.
It also has generated a bitter counterattack by child advocates, alarmed not only that the change will be counterproductive, spawning a new group of older criminals, but also because it reverses an often-creative approach to problem-solving.
The just-released edition of the National Kids Count Data Book, which measures the well-being of the nation’s children, ranked Rhode Island 20th from the top among the states — a better position than last year, when it came in 31st.
Rhode Island has the nation’s best record for low numbers of deaths among children ages 1 to 14, and RIte Care helps the state insure all but seven percent of children, compared to the 11 percent of children nationally who lack health coverage.
But childhood poverty has increased in the last five years, to 19 percent in Rhode Island, and eight percent of older teenagers aren’t in school and aren’t working.

One young man’s path
Wole Akinbi is no expert on brain scans, Supreme Court case law or the details of the Kids Count Data Book. But having turned 18 in May, he has first-hand experience with the transition to adulthood.
“There’s still kid left in me. I don’t think I’m 100 percent independent. I’m scared to go off to college, but I want to,” he says. “It’s time to move on and see what post-high school life is like and being an adult, and to wake up on my own without my Mom telling me, ‘Oh, yeah, aren’t you supposed to be at work?’ ”
P.J. Fox III, operations director at the South Providence-based Institute for the Study & Practice of Nonviolence, who oversaw Akinbi’s internship when he was a student at the Met School, says Akinbi is mature for his age and one of the most committed persons he’s seen to the principles of non-violence.
But Fox agrees with Akinbi’s self-assessment — that in some ways that “he’s still a kid, he’s still being molded, still creating his identity.”
When Akinbi’s friend, Barry Ferrell, was killed in 2005, there was talk within his wide circle of friends of retaliation — an idea quashed sternly by Ferrell’s mother, Trixy Ferrell, who has become a street worker for the institute.
Akinbi says violence wasn’t an option he considered. He’d been raised in a home where his mother was determined to shield him and his younger brother from city street dangers. And he took advantage of programs like Groundwork Providence, which hired young people, including Ferrell and him.
Now, Akinbi remains steadfast in his commitment to nonviolence, but exasperated that not everyone his age agrees. And he’s often of two minds about how those on the threshold of adulthood should be treated.
“There’s a lot of good kids in Providence, like a thousand good kids in Providence,” Akinbi says. “But they get tainted by all these bootlegged leaders that do nothing. They aren’t going anywhere. It’s cool to get jumped. It’s cool to fight every other week.”

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