How our society defines “adult” can be shaped by preconceived—often racialized—ideas about innocence and childhood, ultimately determining one’s legal fate. During Kyle Rittenhouse’s trial for taking multiple lives when he was 17 years old, he was referred to as a “little boy out there trying to protect his community,” by a major news outlet. This stands in stark contrast to the framing of actions by similarly aged black males who are often viewed as more adultlike, in both our larger society and the legal system. One five year sample from New Jersey, for example, showed that close to 90 percent of juveniles tried as adults were Black or Brown. This disparity illustrates how the subjective view of childhood, adulthood, innocence and redeemability have real implications in courts and communities.
Brock Turner was 19 when he sexually assaulted an unconscious woman. The judge in Turner’s case handed down an infamously light sentence, which led to him eventually being recalled by California voters. The judge concluded that “a prison sentence would have a severe impact” on Turner. Further, the judge said this was “probably more true with a youthful offender sentenced to state prison at a – at a young age.” The violence of rape was seemingly muted by the cloak of youthful innocence, indiscreation and potential for rehabilitation afforded to Turner, an approach that led to an attemtp to shield him from a prison environment whose severe impacts most certainly are not selectively harmful to white teens.
Trayvon Martin was just 17 when he was killed. Even as the victim, however, Martin was never able to fully claim his youth. Narratives of recreational marijuana use and other boyhood mischief were weaponized in order to accelerate Martin’s pathway to adulthood. Martin was framed as a peer or equal adversary of the white male adult who initiated contact with him then claimed self defense after shooting the unarmed teen to death.The notion of “defending” one’s self from a child is laughable but another adult could be conceptualized as posing a viable threat. The narrative around Trayvon Martin, a teenage black victim, pushed him into an adulthood that he never lived to see.
If justice is blind, so too should the privilege of youth and the protections it affords, be that from harmful prison sentences in adult courts or overzealous men wielding guns. The vulnerability of children – all children – dictates that they be afforded special protections and considerations by society.