Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: Adult at age 18? At 21? It’s what we expect, not what happens | COMMENTARY

Vincent Schiraldi’s confirmation as Maryland's new secretary of juvenile services was delayed as Republicans expressed concern that he focuses on rehabilitation at the expense of accountability. He was later confirmed by the state Senate.

In the 25 years since they were first uttered, I’ve never forgotten the words of a criminal defendant in Baltimore County Circuit Court: “I keep thinking maybe I could have done something more. But I’m only 21. How much could I do?”

The guy who said that was one of three people charged in a horrible child abuse case. He lived in a house with his girlfriend, the girlfriend’s mother and two girls, one 9 and one 15. The three adults were all convicted of the second-degree murder of the younger girl. I will spare you details of the crime because, a quarter-century later, I find it hard to put descriptive words to it. The trial testimony was as dark as any I’d ever heard. The surviving girl’s testimony for the state left everyone in the courtroom stunned.


But back to those words: “I’m only 21. How much could I do?”

I remember hearing that pathetic defense and thinking that this 21-year-old bully wanted us to believe he was merely a house guest with no power to stop the abuse. Testimony showed just the opposite, and he went to prison.


I had zero pity for that guy, but over the years frequently pondered his claim of powerlessness at 21. It got me wondering if 21 was no longer considered adulthood, a time when a guy was supposed to take on responsibilities, set a course, survive on his own, shed adolescent tendencies toward self-centeredness. Wasn’t that what we expected?

Go back a century, maybe a little less, and look around: Boys and girls were thrown into adult life at an early age. Fewer of them finished school, fewer went to college. They worked on farms and in factories. They married sooner, had babies sooner. They went to war and died in war; there was a military draft and, before Vietnam, virtually no resistance to participation in the nation’s foreign battles.

Tom Brokaw declared the men and women who grew up during the Great Depression and World War II the “greatest generation” because they persevered through hardship and helped save democracy. A teenage boy in 1940 grew up fast because he had no choice; life came at him hard, and someone put a rifle or shovel in his hands.

By the 1980s and 1990s, we were having national conversations about juvenile crime and sexual promiscuity. We heard a new take on adulthood: “Today’s 14-year-old is yesterday’s 21 year-old,” the suggestion being that lots of kids were reaching maturity faster than previous generations, and for very different reasons, all bad. Exposed to lots of sex and violence, they were supposedly savvier, more wise to the world, some of them jaded at an early age.

There was a strong urge to believe all that and worse, especially when juveniles committed crimes of violence. Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers chose to treat them like adults — as remorseless “superpredators,” remember? — and put them in adult prisons, even on Death Row in some cases.

But then came neuroscience research that told a different story — that, in fact, the teenage brain was not fully developed, that a young man’s ability to resist impulse and make reasoned decisions might not be available until he was well into his 20s.

So the thing we had started to believe about teens and young adults — that they had been on an accelerated track to full maturity — had been overstated. That caused another conversation about juveniles and criminality, and it reached as high as the Supreme Court. We needed to adjust laws and sentencing for the fact that the brain does not develop as fast as we had been led to believe, and kids committing crimes major and minor need to be treated differently than older offenders.

Among the many who studied behavior and who came to believe this was Maryland Gov. Wes Moore’s nomination for secretary of the Department of Juvenile Services, Vincent Schiraldi.


In an op-ed published in The Washington Post in 2015, when he was a researcher at the Harvard Kennedy School, Schiraldi argued for moving 21-year-olds to the juvenile system.

“Research in neurobiology and developmental psychology has shown that the brain doesn’t finish developing until the mid-20s, far later than was previously thought,” he wrote. “Young adults are more similar to adolescents than fully mature adults in important ways. They are more susceptible to peer pressure, less future-oriented and more volatile in emotionally charged settings.”

Having 18 as the cutoff for juvenile court was arbitrary, Schiraldi said.

Holding this view is apparently controversial. The Maryland Senate confirmed him as secretary, but not without Republicans griping that Schiraldi leaned too heavily into rehabilitation for young offenders. He was the only Moore nominee to be confirmed without unanimous approval.

Fortunately, the thinking has continued to evolve about all this. Of course, the prison system is about punishment. But if we don’t want offenders leaving prison to commit more crimes — and juveniles have the highest recidivism rate — then we ought to put corrections back in corrections. And, in the 21st century, we should be informed by science and be happy to have a juvenile services secretary who is.

The system can’t do it all, of course. Parents and other grown-ups have the first and biggest responsibility when it comes to helping boys and girls reach honorable adulthood — by 18 or 21 or 25. The sooner the better. This country badly needs more adults.