In a host of ways…kids are just kids

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From William Emslie.

FROM where does Meridian (JEP, 24 July) get the notion that 16-year-olds are ‘in a host of…ways’ treated as adults by the law?

A 16-year-old is not deemed legally old enough to buy alcohol or tobacco, drive a car, own a house, obtain a loan or credit card, serve on a jury, enter a betting shop, watch explicit sex scenes in a cinema. They are, in most ways, treated in law as the growing children that they still are.

True, at 16 young people gain the adult right to consent to sexual activity and, if eligible, vote in Jersey elections. To deny them the former would be to criminalise many otherwise law-abiding young people and would probably be challenged as a fundamental breach of human rights.

It’s also worth noting that there are, even so, still legal caveats in place to protect under 18s from abusive advances from those in positions of trust. Teachers and youth workers, for example, would be breaking the law by having sexual intercourse with one of their charges.

Giving 16-year-olds the vote was a contentious decision, but one that, on balance, I supported. During one’s 17th year, it is also possible to leave school and start working full-time, thereby paying the taxes that finance politicians’ wages and free lunches.

Moreover, atypical as I may have been, I took a keen interest in politics as a teenager. Had I been able to vote at 16, I would have done so and I believe my vote would have been as valid as anyone else’s.

Youngsters who lack the maturity, interest or inclination to vote simply don’t vote. There’s an element of self-selection in the right to representation which, in my view, made extending the franchise fairly risk-free.

The relevance to this of the Youth Court’s proceedings being held in private escapes me. Youths are, by nature, impulsive creatures: often easily led, inexperienced in life, setting out on the road to independence with confusing and sometimes conflicting guidance.

They mess up; they make mistakes. Of course they should not be treated in criminal proceedings as mature adults. I would certainly argue that, save in exceptional circumstances, they should not be publicly named in criminal cases.

I say ‘save in exceptional circumstances’ because there are occasions when the criminal behaviour of under 18s clearly oversteps the boundaries of youthful error.

Such occasions are rare, particularly in Jersey, and involve a tiny proportion of the teenage population. In such circumstances, the court has the option to lift reporting restrictions if it appears to be in the public interest. Why this option is so rarely exercised is a valid question, but I feel it’s one journalists should be asking the judiciary (and there may well be an equally valid answer) rather than fudging the issue with irrelevant factors like voting rights.

After all, and despite my not normally being one to make unsubstantiated assumptions, I doubt if any of the young people who have appeared in the Youth Court since last November actually turned out to vote in the elections.

Perhaps someone should conduct a survey among them. Give me a research grant and I will gladly oblige.

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