Tomorrow morning, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in two cases, Jackson v. Hobbs and Miller v. Alabama, challenging the controversial practice of sentencing juvenile offenders to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Hopefully, the Court will resist the common visceral response to youth violence and consider the scientific evidence that, as compared with adults, adolescents are less equipped to contemplate the consequences of their crimes, are more susceptible to pressure from peers to engage in behaviors they would not ordinarily commit on their own, and may, therefore, someday earn a second chance.
It has been decades since state legislatures around the country overreacted to the late-1980s surge in youth violence by expanding the pool of juveniles who could be tried and punished as if they were adults. Several criminologists (with me among them) had warned that juvenile crime rates could continue to surge if there were not a deep and determined investment in youth development. Unfortunately, most politicians took an alternative approach, emphasizing punishment rather than prevention.
The wholesale transfer of juveniles to the jurisdiction of the criminal court was supported by the catchy, yet illogical slogan, “adult time for adult crime.” Juveniles may look like adults, talk like adults, and even kill like adults, but they reason like the immature kids they are really are. Adolescents are not just a smaller version of adults.
The recent controversy over the R rating preliminarily given to a forthcoming documentary about teenage bullying clearly exposes a real limitation to the existing movie rating system. The voluntary motion picture code of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), a brainchild of the late Jack Valenti, is designed to shield children from content inappropriate for their age and maturity level.
In the case of Bully, the mature rating was earned because of the frequent profanity uttered by the teens in the film. Unless either side (the MPAA or the film’s producer) relents, the rating would restrict access to Bully’s anti-violence message for the very group who would most benefit from seeing it—teenagers.
Perhaps the MMPA expects that teens and their parents will attend the film together (permitted under the R restriction). But for many adolescents, there are few things more embarrassing than being seen in the theater sitting next to their parents. Alternatively, teenagers could always sidestep the MMPA morality marshals by waiting until the film is released on DVD or on cable.
Hopefully, the ratings mess surrounding Bully will be resolved in time for the film’s release scheduled for the end of this month. Even so, there is a much larger problem associated with film ratings, as well as similar rating systems for TV and video games. Not only do rating systems fail to achieve the desired outcome, they often have the reverse effect. Ratings typically do more to attract young audiences to mature content than to deter them.FULL ENTRY