Adolescence in Law: Definition & History

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  • 0:03 Why Does Age Matter?
  • 0:42 Definition
  • 1:58 History
  • 4:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Rachael Smith

Rachael has a background in secondary education and has practiced law for eight years.

This lesson explores the concept of adolescence in the law, providing a definition and detailing its history. The lesson concludes with a summary and questions to test your understanding.

Why Does Age Matter?

Suppose three siblings, ages seven, 13, and 16, walk into a convenience store. The youngest child waits by the front door while the older children walk to either side of the cash register. The oldest child shows a knife to the clerk and demands money. The clerk empties the cash register and the children leave. Within minutes, the police arrest them for armed robbery. Who should be charged? Are they all equally responsible, or does each child's age play a role in their actions? When does a child become responsible for her actions? The answers to these questions are central to the concept of adolescence in the law.


Generallyadolescence is defined as the stage between childhood and adulthood, though there is no exact age range. Adolescence is connected to the beginning of puberty; for girls, this is usually by age 12 and for boys, age 14. Often, this means that adolescents are biologically more like adults than children. But even though they may look more like adults than children, adolescents lack the problem-solving and decision-making skills found in adults.

Adolescence is also the time when significant behavioral changes are observed. Adolescents may exhibit a high level of impulsivity, or acting without thinking. Instead of thinking through the consequences of actions, adolescent decision-making is generally based on emotion, without regard to what could happen (in other words, doing something because you feel like it rather than because you should).

Brain development occurs rapidly during adolescence, but that development may not be complete until the age of 25. In fact, the portion of the brain responsible for the more mature processes (like planning and impulse control) is the last to fully develop. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, adolescents are more likely to commit crimes and to die from injuries sustained during risky behavior than their younger peers.


Prior to the formation of the juvenile courts, children under the age of seven were not charged with crimes because the court didn't consider them capable of forming intent to commit one. Children over the age of seven, however, could be referred to the adult criminal system. If they were found guilty, they could also be sentenced as adults; this could include prison time and even the death penalty.

In 1899, the first juvenile court was formed in the United States as a way to better serve those who were no longer children, but not yet adults. Under the doctrine of parens patriae, the State assumed a role as guardian over children in the court system, recognizing that they require more interventions than adults to address their needs. Greater emphasis was placed on rehabilitation and reform rather than punishment. Juvenile courts began to focus on ways to address the issues that caused children to get into trouble. Community service, drug and alcohol treatment, job training, and various forms of education were implemented to change the causes of offenders' behavior.

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