It happens so often these days that it almost passes without notice: A young defendant, accused of some awful crime, is “charged as an adult.” Such is the case of 14-year-old Philip Chism of Andover, Massachusetts.
The Danvers High School student, prosecutors allege, followed 24-year-old math teacher Colleen Ritzer into a bathroom, punched her in the face and slit her throat with a box-cutter.
Philip Chism isn’t allowed to quit school until he’s 16 years old — not even if he’s offered a contract to play professional soccer for the New England Revolution, a contract which, not being 18 years of age, he would in any case be ineligible to sign on his own authority.
Philip Chism isn’t allowed to drive a car for two more years, either.
Massachusetts’s “age of consent” laws are kind of strange — it’s possible that he might be allowed to have sex at 16, unless he’s lived a “chaste life” from which he was “induced,” in which case the age becomes 18. Either way, the other party to the sexual act is considered a criminal and a predator.
Nor can he vote, enlist in the military, own real estate, register a limited liability company or charter a corporation for four more years.
He has to wait seven more years before he can even legally walk into a bar, sit down, order and drink a beer.
There are very few exceptions to these legal restrictions on what Philip Chism may do and what others may do with him. These restrictions are, their supporters claim, based on the notion that at 14, Chism is not mature or competent enough to do those things. He doesn’t understand the implications and consequences. He’s a child, not an adult. He needs to be, in a word, protected.
But the instant he’s accused of a crime, all that goes out the window. For the convenience of the state and the pacification of the mob, he is magically and retroactively transformed into an “adult.”
There’s a word for that kind of thing, but I can’t use that word in a family-friend publication (it has to do with what comes out the rear ends of male cattle).
If Philip Chism is a child when it comes to school attendance, contracts, sexual encounters, driving, voting, enlisting, drinking, etc., he’s a child when he’s thought to have killed someone.
If Philip Chism is not a child when he’s thought to have killed someone, he’s not a child with respect to any of those other matters, either.
Philip Chism is either a child, or he’s not.
I’m an anarchist, but even I acknowledge that children and adults are different and will always, in any society, be treated differently.
The problem with the political way of handling these differences is that it amounts to having politicians draw numbers out of hats, letting them impose protections/restrictions (on children and adults alike) based on those numbers, and allowing them to discard those protections/restrictions when they become politically inconvenient.
If those protections and restrictions are just, they remain just even when they become politically inconvenient, and should be rigorously and universally maintained. If they are unjust, they should be discarded completely, no matter how politically convenient they may be.
While I can’t guarantee that the coming stateless society will birth a more just and sound model for handling the differences between children and adults, I’m fairly confident — if for no other reason than that it would be hard to come up with a LESS just model than the arbitrary and capricious standards now being applied to Philip Chism.