A new book offers teenagers help in sorting out where they stand in the American legal system, which sometimes treats them as children, other times as adults.
“The more you know about your rights, the better equipped you’ll be to help yourself and others,” says a book called “What Are My Rights?” written by Arizona juvenile court judge Thomas A. Jacobs.
Some laws treat teenagers as kids, making them subject to curfews and school locker searches that could not be imposed on adults. Other laws treat teenagers as adults, giving them protection against on-the-job discrimination but also subjecting some murderers as young as 16 to the death penalty.
The book, issued by Free Spirit Publishing in Minneapolis, aims to help young people understand their legal rights and responsibilities in a fast-changing world.
Surprisingly, some youngsters think laws do not apply to them until they turn 18, Jacobs said in an interview. “We hear so often, ‘I didn’t know that’ or ‘If I had known, I would have acted differently,”’ he said.
But teenagers need to be informed, Jacobs said, because many laws now impose more serious consequences for offenses, such as scrawling graffiti on public property, that used to be viewed as youthful pranks.
Some need to consider what will happen to them if their parents divorce, the judge said. They also should understand that if they become a parent, they will face the very adult responsibility of supporting their child.
Many laws treat children differently simply because they are young.
“The theory is that we need to work with our children,” Jacobs said. “They need guidance; they need protection.”
Teenagers with jobs have almost the same rights as adults, including protection against discrimination because of race or sex. However, child labor laws restrict the hours youths can work and hazardous jobs often are off-limits.
Youngsters in public schools have some right to privacy and free expression, but courts say those rights can be balanced against the need for a positive learning environment. Therefore, schools can impose dress codes, search the lockers of students suspected of breaking rules or require drug tests for athletes.
Young people who commit crimes usually are sent to the juvenile justice system where the scales are tipped more toward rehabilitation than punishment. But an increasing number of young people who commit serious crimes are being sent to adult court where they can wind up in prison or even on death row.
Children have legal protection against abuse or neglect by their parents or guardians. But parents have the authority to discipline their children, within reason. And they can make decisions about their children’s faith, education and when they can get a job.
“The bottom line … is that you’re required to follow the rules set by your parents,” the book says.
“While some of these rules may seem too strict or unfair, they’re designed to protect you,” Jacobs wrote. “Understanding your rights and responsibilities at home can bring you closer to reaching your goals in life.”