.. . There are forty jurisdictions in the U.S. that allow capital punishment at all; thirty-eight states, and the federal government on the civilian and military side. Of these forty jurisdictions nineteen allow the death penalty for those sixteen and older (Promises, 1999), five for age seventeen year and older, and the remaining sixteen states only allow execution for adults, those eighteen and older (Streib 2000). Even though these statistics seem to be somewhat spread out among the states the truth is that the majority of the sentences are handed out by judges in three states; Texas, who has already been mentioned as the leader in the juvenile execution topic, Florida, and Alabama (Streib, 2000).
And the numbers will more than likely only rise. Between 1983 and 1998 the death sentencing rate for juveniles went up 124% (Beck, 1999) and with the surge of young violence continuing and legislatures “getting tuff” on juvenile crime, that number will only rise. We want to move on now and look closer at capital punishment itself and its effect on juveniles as a punishment or lack there of. In a letter to Mr. Gerald Garrett, chairman of the Texas board of pardons and paroles, Mr.
Lois Whitman pleaded that “..children and adolescents are different from adults. They lack an adult’s experience, perspective, judgment, maturity, and restraint” (2000). Mr. Whitman is the Executive Director of the Children’s Rights Division and was writing this letter on behalf of Gary Graham who was sentenced to death at the age of seventeen. Many people share this view that juveniles are at an age where they should be held responsible for their actions, but punishment as severe as death is too extreme.
That may be the viewpoint in Texas, however out in Los Angeles the tides turn a bit. One citizen there believes that if a kid can commit an adult crime they should face adult consequences (Farley & Willwerth, 1998). Out in Los Angeles they have a problem that makes them feel a bit different about “innocent little children.” Gangs often use young kids to go out and be the “trigger pullers” because they know that the younger kids might not have to face capital punishment (Farley & Willworth,1998). This shows two different sides to the coin on how people view this issue and some of the differing reasons. In Beccaria’s often quotesd writing On Crimes and Punishment, he gives us his foundational reason for punishment; “[P]unishmnets and the means adopted for inflicting them should..
be so selected as to make the most effacious and lasting impression on the minds of men with the least torment to the body of the condemned” (1995). By this definition we then ask the question, is death the least possible means of correcting our juveniles? Later on Beccaria goes on to give his view on the death penalty. He believed that there were only two reasons to put one to death; if after losing his freedom he still poses a threat to the nation or if “his death is the true and only brake to prevent others from committing crimes” (1998). The Supreme Court in the ruling of the Thompson case struggled with two key terms to try and justify capital punishment for teenagers, retribution and deterrence. The result of their assessment of these two ideas in relationship to juveniles seemed to show that capital punishment was not a very effective punishment.
From the retributive standpoint, the justices concluded that it could not be applied to juveniles because of their potential and capacity to grow and their lower standard of “culpability” (Ricotta, 1988). From the deterrent standpoint, they questioned whether a certain age would be more deterred than another based on the assumption that teenagers do not really engage in a cost-benefit analysis before they commit their crimes (1988). Finally, the overall assessment, whether inconclusive or not, was that without retribution and/or deterrence, capital punishment “is nothing more than the purposeless and needless imposition of pain and suffering” (1998). Thompson’s sentence was eventually reversed and his case set a precedent still in use today. Victor Streib outlines a few arguments for and against a juvenile death penalty in his collection of research. We will look at a few of each starting with the arguments for. The first argument is that the problem that we have with teenagers committing homicide is much more severe than in other countries (2000).
Juveniles also do not respond very well to punishment that is less harsh, forcing the need for more intense corrections, which is the second argument. The third reason deals with our political leaders and their strong emphasis on “harsher punishments” (2000). The last argument for the juvenile death penalty is simply that we can not solve the root of the problem, the “societal conditions which breed violent juvenile crime.” Therefore we must try to correct the problem through the end result which is punishment for the crime (2000). The first argument against the juvenile death penalty deals with the study that was mentioned above. Many of these kids come from very bad backgrounds and therefore they have not had the chance to grow up and mature and move on from this difficult time in their life. The second reason opposers hold is that kids of the age we are referring to are not deterred from crime by the death penalty because they have “little realistic understanding of death and instead tend to see themselves as immortal” (2000).
Thirdly, opposers believe we must try and start at the root of the problem and improve societal conditions and our neighborhoods (2000). Lastly, another popular view comes from the Thompson case where one justice commented that “..executing [Thompson] eliminates all prospects of rehabilitation and affords no more protection for society than secured imprisonment” (Ricotta, 1988). This reason basically charges the death penalty with giving up on our youth and not offering the chance to reform themselves. The youngest juvenile executed by the government was a young boy in the country of Yemen (Executions, 2000). He was only thirteen. And while this may seem out of touch for our society we must look at the pros and cons of this issue and evaluate our punishment of juveniles.
If we do not, it will be only a matter of time before our thirteen year olds are so out of control to the point where a jury will vote “yes” to take that boy’s life away. To date, the youngest juvenile executed in the U.S. was Sean Sellers of Oklahoma. He was executed in early 1999 for a crime he committed when he was sixteen years old (Promises, 1999). With the Presidential election coming up as well we need consider the implications that might take place if the Governor of Texas, the state that executes more juveniles than any other state in our nation becomes elected. What will this mean for the nation? This brief overview of the juvenile death penalty should help awaken us to some of the issues and future implications that are associated with this issue.
Bibliography Bibliography Amnesty International Press Release. (1997, June). United States of America: Amnesty International outraged about possible sentence against South African teenager in Mississippi. Available: http://www.amnesty-usa.org/news/ 1997/25102997.htm Beccaria, C. (1995).
On crimes and punishments and other writings. New York: Cambridge University Press. Beck, A. (1999, March). Background information: March 1999.
Available: http://www.ojjdp.ncjrs.org/council/march1999/ juveniles.html Farley, C. & Willwerth, J. (1998, January 19). Dead teen walking. Time, 151, 50-56. Executions of juvenile offenders.
(2000). Available: http:// www.essential.org/dpic.juvexec.html Gonnerman, J. (2000, January 5). Kids on the row. The Village Voice [Online]. Available: http://www.villagevoice .com/issues/0001/gonnerman.shtml Promises broken: Children in conflict with the law. (1999, December).
Available: http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/crp/ promises/law.html Ricotta, D. (1988). Eighth amendment-the death penalty for juveniles: A state’s right or a child’s injustice. Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology, 79, 921-951. Streib, V.
(2000, June). The death penalty today: Death sentences and executions for juvenile crimes January 1, 1973-June 30, 2000. Available: http://www.law.onu.edu/ faculty/streib/juvdeath.htm Whitman, L. (2000, June 20). Bush should halt Texas execution: Human Rights Watch letter to the Texas board of pardons and paroles.
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