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Abolish the Death Penalty for Youths

September 16, 2002|VINCENT SCHIRALDI

Three U.S. Supreme Court justices have said that the court should consider abolishing the death penalty for people who committed their offenses as minors, setting up the juvenile death penalty as the newest frontier in our nation's debate over capital punishment.

"Given the apparent consensus that exists among the states and in the international community against the execution of a capital sentence imposed on a juvenile offender," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, "I think it would be appropriate to revisit the issue at the earliest possible opportunity." Justices Stephen G. Breyer and Ruth Bader Ginsburg agreed.

Over the last three years, aside from the United States, only Pakistan, Iran and the Republic of Congo have executed juvenile offenders--hardly the kind of human rights company we should be keeping.

Even within the United States, executing juveniles is uncommon.

Although 22 states allow people who committed their offenses when they were under age 18 to be executed, only seven states have actually carried out juvenile executions since the death penalty was reinstated in 1973. Of the 21 who have been executed since, 13 were in Texas. And of the 26 youthful offenders now on death row in Texas, 10 are from Harris County (Houston) despite the fact that a recent Houston Chronicle poll found that only 25% of county residents supported executing juvenile offenders.

In the landmark Atkins decision in June, the high court barred execution of the mentally retarded, ruling that "those mentally retarded persons who meet the law's requirements for criminal responsibility should be tried and punished when they commit crimes. Because of their disabilities in the areas of reasoning, judgment and control of their impulses, however, they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct."

Obviously, that reasoning is analogous to youthful offenders. Do juveniles have the same moral reasoning as adults? Of course not, that's why we don't let them vote until they are 18.

Do young people have the same level of impulse control? Again, an obvious no, which is why they are forbidden to drink alcohol until age 21.

According to the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, recent scientific advancements have found that the brain does not physically stop maturing until age 20 or so, and maturation can be severely retarded by abuse and neglect, afflictions suffered by most young offenders on death row.

Death penalty supporters have decried the high court's Atkins ruling based on public safety and the unlikely premise that defendants will fake retardation to avoid execution.

These arguments are weaker when it comes to juveniles. It's virtually impossible to fake age. And, while the diminished culpability associated with mental retardation is permanent, the diminished culpability associated with youthfulness can be cured with maturity and rehabilitation, reducing the risk of future dangerousness.

At an August press conference announcing the introduction of a bill to abolish Texas' juvenile death penalty, University of Texas law professor Jordan Steiker said, "We are in fact deciding whether we will be among the last jurisdictions on Earth to retain this practice, with its message of despair and vengeance, or whether we will acknowledge the uniqueness of youth and bring compassion and hope to the problems youth presents."

Texas and those other 21 states should get on the right side of science, public opinion, international and national standards of decency and, most important, history.

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Vincent Schiraldi is president of the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, which is part of the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative.

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