Last Thursday in a 5 to 4 decision the US Supreme Court ruled that age must be considered by law enforcement officers when deciding whether to inform a child in police custody of his Miranda rights. The decision reverses the North Carolina State Supreme Court. The case involved a 13-year-old seventh grader referred to in the proceedings only as JDB. JDB was suspected of being responsible for several local break-ins. He was taken from his social studies class by a uniformed police officer on detail at the school and for over thirty minutes, in a closed conference room was interrogated by the officer, a police investigator and two members of the school’s administration. He was not given Miranda warnings. He was not given the opportunity to call his grandmother who was his legal guardian. And he was not told he was free to leave.

     He eventually confessed to the break-ins. Only then was he told he was free to leave. His public defender argued to get the confession dismissed as the boy was not properly Mirandized. His motion to suppress was denied by the trial court. The court adjudicated JDB a delinquent. A North Carolina Appellate and State Supreme Court agreed.

     The issue was whether the youth understood that he was in police custody. The State Supreme Court found that his age is irrelevant.

     I find that astounding.

     The whole concept of “ignoring age” is foreign to me as a pediatrician. Our entire training is age-based. Listeria infections just don’t happen in five-year-olds. Multiple sclerosis may be in my differential diagnosis in a fifteen-year-old, but not in a one-year-old. Matching children’s ages with their expected developmental capabilities is what I do for a living. As we like to say in pediatrics, “children are not little adults.” In medicine, we are generally talking about their immature immune systems or under-developed neurons. But their judgment is under-developed, too. Children’s brains are still developing into their teens and early twenties. This seems to be a settled societal question, given the age requirements we put on certain rights and behaviors like driving a car, drinking alcohol, getting married or enlisting in the service.

     In writing for the majority, Justice Sotomayor noted the “commonsense reality…that children will often feel bound to submit to police questioning when an adult in the same circumstances would feel free to leave.” Indeed, when my kids were little, police were such trusted community figures that it was common to instruct children who were lost in a mall, say, to find someone in uniform that would help them.

     In writing for the opposing minority, Justice Alito laments that this decision turns Miranda’s custody determination into an “inquiry” that must account for age. He complains that police will now be required to make “on-the-spot judgments.” I would suggest that this is exactly what police are trained to do every day: make split second decisions. I also don’t think asking a child his age is exactly an “on-the-spot judgment.”

     Here in Massachusetts, children as young as 7 and as old as 13 can be charged with a crime. Here, we seem to understand the folly of treating children like adults. We understand that children’s potential for rehabilitation and redemption is significant. Our Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative provides non-violent youth offenders with social services and keeps them out of jail where adults in for more serious crimes can have a negative influence on them. Massachusetts runs 57 facilities from group homes to locked units as well as community-based programs for youth offenders who live at home. The number of juveniles in custody in the justice system in the Commonwealth  decreased to 730 the entire year of 2010 from 1113 in 2006.

     Justice Alito contends that “safeguarding the constitutional rights of minors does not require the extreme makeover of Miranda that (this) decision may portend.” But I agree with the majority. Including age as part of custody analysis isn’t asking police to know something unknowable. It’s just common sense.