The Legal Construction of Childhood

Elizabeth S. Scott, Columbia Law School


Two features of the legal regulation of childhood seem troublesome, but ultimately contribute to sensible policies in most contexts. First, the boundary between childhood and adulthood varies in different policy domains, through a regime of age grading under which elementary school students are deemed adults for some legal purposes, while, for other purposes, college students are children. Second, the transitional stage of adolescence is virtually invisible, because, for most purposes, law makers employ binary categories, classifying adolescents as either children or as adults. This framework – a series of legislative bright line rules, arrayed around a presumptive age of majority – generally promotes social welfare as well as the interests of youth. Although this approach sometimes distorts developmental reality, it accomplishes the transition from legal childhood to adulthood over time without incurring the costs associated with the creation of intermediate legal category. Indeed, the unsuccessful experience with abortion regulation (in which adolescents occupy a special category) confirms the benefits of binary classification.

In the context of juvenile justice policy, however, categorical assumptions that ignore the developmental stage of adolescence have harmful outcomes. In responding to youth crime, law makers have shifted the boundary of childhood dramatically during the 20th century. The Progressive architects of the traditional juvenile court described delinquent youths as innocent children, and constructed policies that presumed that the state's sole purpose was to promote their welfare. Contemporary conservatives, in contrast, assume that young offenders are indistinguishable from adult criminals, and argue that public protection demands that they be subject to the same punishment. I argue that both of these accounts represent distortions and have been the basis of unsatisfactory policies – even in terms of the professed objectives of their adherents. A justice policy that treats adolescence as a distinct legal category not only will promote youth welfare, but will also advance the utilitarian objectives of reducing the costs of youth crime.