What IS the Age of Maturity?

A recent question in CityView, a Des Moines alternative newspaper, asked readers: “Should the minimum age to purchase tobacco products be raised to 21 in Iowa?”  All sorts of answers ensued.  One reader said tobacco should be outlawed and marijuana should be legalized.  Another said that tobacco should be outlawed, altogether.  And, of course, someone compared purchasing cigarettes to buying guns.  Whatever.

The age of maturity should be consistent – for everything.

Whether buying cigarettes, purchasing an alcoholic beverage, voting, being tried in criminal court by a panel of your peers, entering the armed forces, gambling, or becoming married without parents’ permission, a person should know that the absolute legal dividing line is a particular age.

On July 1, 1971, the Twenty-sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution was ratified and placed into effect.  Section 1 of the 26th Amendment states: “The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”  I couldn’t vote in a Presidential race until the fall of 1972, although I was already 22 years-old and a veteran.  I voted for Angela Davis (Communist Party candidate) out of spite.

I turned 21 three months after the 26th Amendment was ratified.

I was drafted into the Army at the age of nineteen.  I was told by the government at the age of 19 that I had to involuntarily commit to possibly sacrificing my life for the sake of this country.  But I couldn’t drink legally, and I couldn’t vote until after I was discharged from military service at the age of 21.  I had very little control over my own destiny.  The Amendment did little good for me.

The Iowa Legislature, under a heck of a lot of pressure from many of us who could now vote, succumbed to the mob mentality of our generation and lowered the age for drinking beer and intoxicating liquors from twenty-one to nineteen in 1972[1].  It was too late to affect me.

Cigarettes are good for no one.  I smoked most of my adult life.  I have since quit (15 years ago – and it wasn’t easy), but I remember the power of nicotine over my body and soul.  I could always buy cigarettes at the age of eighteen.  If I wanted, I could buy them at the age of 14 – and sometimes I did, but I didn’t smoke regularly until I was 18.  Actually, I began chewing before smoking.  There was never a tug-of-war over what age we should or should not smoke.  The tobacco lobby was too strong.  We now get to experience how the tobacco lobby has lost its power in the state Capitol and the halls of Congress.  If it can happen to the powerful tobacco lobby; it can happen to any lobbying monster.

If I can ruin my lungs at eighteen, get killed in a war at eighteen, have the mature and responsible thought process of getting married at eighteen without going through parental permission, have the power to get a tattoo, an abortion, enter into a contract, and all those other things that are legal for normal adults to acclaim, I should be able to drink a legal beer, gamble, and, when I was 18 – vote!

Well, as I recall, those were some of the arguments we used in 1972 when we weren’t happy with the age nineteen decision.  We wanted more.  And we got it.  The following year after the Iowa Legislature succumbed to lowering the drinking age to 19, it reduced the legal age for drinking once again.  Eighteen was now the legal age for a person to walk up to the bar and say give me Bud Light[2].  But not really, Bud Light wasn’t invented – yet.

The opposition to the eighteen argument by the terrible teetotalers was that seniors in high school would be going to school drunk.  Yeah, that was a possibility (and in very few circumstances – reality).  But think of it, they could be going to high school married, legally smoking (at the time, smoking was an acceptable societal habit), entering contracts, and “Oh, my God!  Voting!”

As predicted, alcohol in high school, or at least as soon as school let out for the day, was an occasional problem.  But it was a legal problem.  And it wasn’t as bad as people claimed it to be.  But my generation had yelled about as loud as we were going to get.  Those now entering the age of eighteen had taken everything for granted.  So, in 1978, the law of a legal drink reverted back to the age of nineteen[3].

I can’t remember the age of maturity for drinking going back to twenty-one, but the Iowa Code Annotated tells me it was 1997[4].  I thought it had happened at least 10, if not 15, years prior to that.

Today, legal and scientific scholars tell us that the mind does not fully develop until the age of 26.

In Miller v. Alabama, Associate Justice Elena Kagan relied upon three “significant gaps between juveniles and adults” in two previous cases [Roper v. Simmons, 543 U. S. 551 (2005) and Graham v. Florida, 560 U. S. 48, 68, 74 (2010)] that set precedent for declaring that life sentences without parole for juveniles was cruel and unusual punishment.

First, children have a “‘lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility,’” leading to recklessness, impulsivity, and heedless risk-taking. Roper, 543 U. S., at 569. Second, children “are more vulnerable . . . to negative influences and outside pressures,” including from their family and peers; they have limited “contro[l] over their own environment” and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. Ibid. And third, a child’s character is not as “well formed” as an adult’s; his traits are “less fixed” and his actions less likely to be “evidence of irretrievabl[e] deprav[ity].” Id., at 570.

Miller v. Alabama, 567 U.S. 460, 471 (2012).

You can drive at the age of 16 and a car can be a potentially dangerous weapon.  You may enter the Armed Forces on your own at 18 and be handed a dangerous weapon.  However, you cannot drink or gamble legally until you are 21.  Is driving a car or carrying an assault weapon less dangerous than having a social drink and playing a game of blackjack?  I don’t think so.

Although legal, people my age cannot properly drive; they cannot seem to maneuver those middle turn lanes without having the rear of the auto block the traffic lane.  Some people my age cannot drink moderately.  Some cannot gamble without getting carried away.  Few still smoke, damaging their bodies and those around them.  I’ve seen horrible tattoos on several people my age.  Many, including myself, have been divorced – often the result of an immature decision.   And, oh my God, some adults vote for idiots.

I know many teenagers who make better decisions than a lot of folks in my generation.  Let’s face it, there should be one age of maturity.  I don’t care if it’s 16, 18, 21, 26, or 65, but let’s be consistent.

The age restriction that bothers me the most is the one in which a prosecuting attorney can try a minor in adult court.  What is so magic about a kid who cannot drive, get an abortion, wear a tattoo, enter the Marines, marry, smoke a cigarette, drink alcohol, gamble, or enter into a legal contract being tried as an adult in district court?  If we’re going to have juvenile court, let’s have juvenile court.

Kids are kids, one way or the other.  Justice is a difficult term to define.  Everyone has their own opinion of what they perceive as justice.  But justice must include equality.  If a kid cannot be conscripted into the Army, he or she should not be drafted into the adult judicial system.

This blog is dedicated to a woman who knew justice and fought for juvenile justice to her end.  Sister JoAnne Talarico.

[1] Acts 1972 (64 G.A.) ch. 1027, § 54, changed the legal age definition from twenty-one to nineteen years or more (later amended; see 1973 and 1978 amendment notes, post).

[2] Acts 1973 (65 G.A.) ch. 140, § 10, reduced the definition of “legal age” from nineteen to eighteen (later amended; see 1978 amendment note, post).

[3] Acts 1978 (67 G.A.) ch. 1069, § 1, substituted nineteen years for eighteen years in the definition of “legal age”.
[4] Acts 1997 (77 G.A.) ch. 126, § 1, in subsec. 19, substituted “twenty-one” for “nineteen”.


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