Juveniles and the death penalty


Why it’s not a Deterrent, and How it can Become One

Today, minors are using their age as a shield against capital punishment. I feel the death penalty is appropriate for juveniles in certain circumstances, such as murder and brutal crimes that are considered capital offenses. The rate at which the death penalty is carried out, as well as inconstancies in sentencing doesn’t make it a deterrent. There should not be an age limit in all capital offenses for those who could face the death penalty and knew what he or she was doing was wrong, and a crime. Age limits do not predict when one is able to handle responsibilities. What they do is assume one should be able to take on new responsibilities, laws, and issues. One is not suddenly capable of driving at sixteen, and not immediately given the knowledge of the voting system at eighteen. How does a specific age predict when a person knows right from wrong? By not having a minimum age for juvenile offenders in capital offenses, juvenile’s special rights and immunities would be taken away. These rights for juveniles exist so justice courts can provide measures of guidance and rehabilitation for the youth by using mentors in society. There have been several laws made for juveniles regarding the age they could be tried as adults in capital cases. Although, the age limit varies from state to state, and even then that age isn’t always followed due to different situations in cases. This is what I mean by inconsistencies among court cases. These laws were made because some youth who was not yet considered an adult committed a horrific crime and knew what he or she was doing when the crime took place. These juveniles perform the same malicious acts as adult capital offenders. They need to be punished for their actions just as the adults are so they know they can’t get away with crime just because their age says they’re not an adult yet.

Thirty-eight states and the federal government created statutes authorizing the death penalty for certain forms of murder and other capital offenses. Presently, fifteen states have chosen the minimum age of eighteen for a youth to be considered for the death penalty, four have chosen the age of seventeen, and twenty states have chosen sixteen as a minimum age. There was one agreement among justices regarding the Constitution which doesn’t say juveniles can’t receive the death penalty. The Constitution, which has its roots in English Common law, is not in violation of the cases of juvenile death penalties. Before having a minimum age limit in effect, English Common law had a direct influence on the Constitution. This common law, carried over to American statutes, established the assumption that no one under the age of seven had the mental capability to commit crimes. Therefore they had no concept of mens rea, which is a Latin word meaning intent. In English common law intent had to be proven in cases concerning offenders of ages seven to fourteen, which carried over to be an American standard. Only in cases of youth over the age of fourteen was it possible to acknowledge they had the mental capacity to perform a crime with intent. Because these juveniles’ crimes were so harsh, the youth’s case would be transferred to criminal courts and, in turn, makes it possible to sentence violent, juvenile offenders with the death penalty. The idea of whether or not the death penalty should be applied to juveniles is only possible through the transfer of juveniles out of the juvenile courts and into an adult criminal court. Only then can a guilty, violent youth be punished to the full extent for the capital crimes they have committed.

Due to inconsistencies in the laws, the death penalty is not a deterrent from keeping youth from committing crimes or fearing any serious punishments. The goal of having stricter penalties will hopefully also decrease the numbers of future generations who commit crimes. I feel that age is not a determining factor in deciding whether or not a youth should be punished for their actions. It should be based on whether or not the person had the mental capacity to know what he or she was doing was a crime and what they did was wrong. Setting a minimum age for prosecuting youth for capital crimes was an efficient way of punishing offenders in the past, but in today’s society it is not. Children are killing other children at younger ages every day. Some reports on the news have stories “where a twelve year old and two other youths were charged in kidnapping a fifty-seven year old man and taking a joy ride in his Toyota. As the man pleaded for his life, the juveniles shot him to death” (Vigh 1). “A fifty-nine year old man out on a morning stroll in Lake Tahoe was fatally shot four times by teenagers looking for someone to scare” (Vigh 2). Police officers say that they were “thrill shooting.” Society needs the death penalty to punish these killers. The death penalty has the potential to be a very effective deterrent if it was enforced on a regular basis. One way to look at it is, how many people would commit murder if they knew they would be killed also for their crime? If this were the case not many people would murder unless they also wanted to die. Some setbacks in laws for juveniles are also the same as for adults, such as: time, costs, and inconsistencies in sentences. Juvenile laws need to be stricter. If there was not an age minimum and decisions were purely based on cognizance, cases could be decided on more fairly and consistently. Inconsistency in the court system also conveys a feeling of injustice to the public. As one juvenile is sentenced and put to death, then their sentence is reversed on technicalities, make me question the justice and success of this form of punishment. Age was considered a mitigating factor in the trial of a sixteen year old , Monty Lee Eddings, and his sentence was eventually reversed. The sentencing in the trial of Roach v. Martin, which involved a mentally retarded seventeen year old defendant, was the death penalty. In the trial of Thompson v. Oklahoma, fifteen year old Thompson had his sentence reversed after claiming cruel and unusual punishment with emphasis on the 8th Amendment. While in the case of Prejean v. Blackburn in 1984, a seventeen year old was given the death penalty and put to death for the same crime. These inconsistencies challenge the justice of the American Judiciary System, and also the strength of the Constitution. That is what’s wrong with the age limit. Too many juveniles receive a slap on the wrist while others have to take the full punishment.

As the number of cases turned over to the criminal courts increases, the public’s recognition that juveniles can and do commit serious felonies also increases. For example, if a youth who is not old enough to be considered an adult is charged with a capital offense, his or her case can be transferred to a criminal court if the crime is severe enough. One of the first actions taken during the juvenile court process is determining whether a case should be processed in the criminal justice system, rather than the juvenile court. In most states cases are referred by the juvenile court judge. This process is known as a judicial waiver, which transfers the case to the criminal, adult court. “The number of delinquency cases waived to criminal court grew 73% between 1986 and 1994 and then declined 17% in 1995” ( Stahl 1). Between 1987 and 1996 the number of juvenile offense cases waived, or turned over to criminal court, increased 125% in the area of offenses against other people, increased 124% in drug offense cases, and 22% increase in public order cases. Only one category decreased in numbers of waivers to criminal courts. This was property offenses, and it only decreased 2%, which is not as significant as the three categories that each increased over 100%. The general public has also lost confidence in rehabilitation programs for juveniles and say they are not successful due to the increases in juvenile crime. The seriousness of types of crimes being committed by juveniles is also increasing. The juveniles in the 1950’s were called the Sharks and Jets from the famous West Side Story. Today they are the Bloods and the Cripps. It’s scary to think that crimes could get any worse, and like the Bloods and Cripps, make the Sharks and Jets look lame. It’s even worse to think a group could make our Bloods and Cripps look like they aren’t dangerous.

The youth, not only in America, but in the world are growing up faster and are exposed to more than their parents were at their age. As these youth are growing up faster they are also capable at earlier ages of committing dreadful crimes. Just because these so-called children are still young doesn’t mean that we should treat them less severe because of their age. They have committed the same disturbing crimes, with same shocking lack of remorse as any adult in the same situation would have felt. These troubled youth need a deterrent from a life of crime. If juveniles knew they couldn’t get away with living a life of crime, and they would be punished for capital crimes just as adults are, fewer juveniles would commit crimes at younger ages. If fewer juveniles committed crimes at younger ages then they would be less likely to commit crimes as an adult because they didn’t when they were younger. If a youth was discouraged from a life of crime because they knew the harshness of the penalties they wouldn’t perform crimes. Often today police officers don’t treat juvenile crimes the same way as they treat adult crimes because laws and penalties aren’t as serious for juveniles. The officer may feel that he or she is wasting their time on juvenile cases and should spend more time on adult cases. These juveniles are allowed back on the streets to perform more crimes, which are usually more serious than the crimes they were let off for. Everyone knows that if one gets away with something once he or she will do it again. That crime may not seem as menacing to the juvenile and he or she will do something more serious the second, or even the third and forth times. Who knows how far a youth may go and in how much trouble the youth may cause in the end. He or she may even end up being murderers or rapists, who knows?

Once a juvenile is placed in the hands of the criminal courts he or she is subject to all of the punishments that an adult offender would encounter, including capital punishment. This is fair because they knew the severity of the crime they committed and society has the right to execute them whether they are sixteen or forty-six years old. Being on death row isn’t cruel and unusual punishment, being a murder victim is. Those who are murdered and raped don’t get a second chance. Why should the murderers and rapists? Chances are the offender doesn’t go through half as much pain as the victim went through. The future of our court system and the punishment of juveniles for capital crimes depends on the reform of the death penalty, with emphasis on consistency and justice. Lenient sentencing based strictly on age is no longer acceptable for crimes of this magnitude. The death penalty saves lives because it stops those who murder from going back onto the streets and murdering again. In order for the death penalty to work the practice of it must be more consistent in cases of violent crimes. People simply aren’t fearful of the death penalty when it isn’t used the way it should be. Death is employed as punishment for only the worst criminal, and it is fitting that they receive the appropriate punishment. Although, there is no punishment that can entirely eliminate violent crime, a more perpetual use of the death penalty would act as a deterrent.

Bender, David L. and Leon Bruno. The Death Penalty: Opposing Viewpoints.

San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991.

Bortner, M.A. and Linda M. Williams. Youth in Prison. New York: Routledge,

Champion, Dean J. and Larry G. Mays. Transferring Juveniles to Criminal Courts.

New York: Praeger Publishers, 1991.

Flanders. Capital Punishment. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1991.

Inciardi, James A. Criminal Justice: 6th Edition. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace

Stahl, Anne. “Delinquency Cases Judicially Waived to Criminal Court, 1987-

1996.” 1999. (4 Apr. 2000).

Vigh, Michael. “Juveniles Face the Death Sentence.” 1999. (4 Apr. 2000).