Juvenile Death Penalty Thesis

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Juvenile Death Penalty

One of the most contested and debated issues in the United States today is probably the death penalty. Until its abolition in 2005, the death penalty for juvenile offenders can be said to have enjoyed even more attention by means of debate. While the juvenile justice system was recognized as an entity to hold juvenile offenders accountable for their actions, some believed that to include the death penalty in juvenile justice was cruel, unusual, and mostly unnecessary. The main reason behind this was the youth of juvenile offenders. Opponents reasoned that young offenders hardly ever could be said to have no possibility of rehabilitation. Hence, life or a significant amount of years in prison was considered to have a better effect for both the offenders in question and society in general than the death penalty for youthful offenders. Indeed, many professionals and members of the public are increasingly arguing for the abolition of the death penalty as a whole.

The Nature and History of Juvenile Justice

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Writing in the year 2000, before the abolition of the juvenile death penalty, Lynn Cothern (2000) emphasized the purpose of the juvenile justice system as an accountability feature, while also providing treatment for delinquent actions. As such, the system regarded youthful offenders as not only accountable for their actions, but also as having an inherent ability to be rehabilitated and learn form their actions. Hence, systems such as rehabilitation services and programs are available to help the youth return to their potentially productive lives. This was mainly a reaction to the generally harsh treatment of the youth by the general justice system. Juvenile justice recognizes the developmental differences between adults and the youth.

TOPIC: Thesis on Juvenile Death Penalty Assignment

However, the end of the 20th century saw a revision of the death penalty. Concomitantly with an increase of violent crime, the juvenile justice system was also revised to include stronger policies and punishments. This resulted in an increasing number of youth who committed capital crimes being sentenced either to death or to life in prison without parole. In the year 2000, 23 of the 38 American States who authorized the death penalty also permitted execution for those who committed capital crimes before they were 18 years old. The author however emphasizes that the laws governing the death penalty and the youth in the 23 relevant states varied significantly.

Like the general death penalty, the juvenile death penalty at the time also resulted in debate surrounding its effectiveness. According to Cothern (2000), proponents supported it as appropriate action against those who committed certain serious crimes while also acting as deterrent to others who are tempted to the same type of crimes. Opponents however contested that it was both cruel and risked wrongful conviction in addition to failing as a deterrent.

In history, Thomas Graunger was the first known juvenile execution in the United States. He was executed for bestiality in 1652 in Plymouth Colony, MA. Between that time and the year 2000, 361 persons were executed for crimes they committed before their 18th birthday. The juvenile justice system however also evolved concomitantly in order to attempt fairness in terms of the nature of the crime and its punishment. Elements such as mitigating circumstances were also taken into account in this ruling.

The law also recognised that minors in general are less mature and responsible than adults. Hence, the Supreme Court reflected this in its decision to reject five requests to consider the death penalty for juveniles between 1983 and 1986. In Thompson v. Oklahoma in 1987, however, the Supreme Court found that the issue merited attention. Although the specific finding was against the death sentence for the specific 15-year-old individual, the Court also acknowledged for the first time the right of juvenile courts to decide similar issues or refer it to the Supreme Court.

Because of the seriousness of the issue, legislation began to pay attention to standardizing decision making regarding the issue. It was then recognized that juveniles were entitled to certain rights when waiver decisions were at issue. They were for example entitled to a hearing, counsel, and access to information regarding the waiver decision, as well as the reasons for the decision. Furthermore, juvenile courts were obliged by law to consider specific factors before making the waiver decision. These factors, according to Cothern (2000), for example included 1) The seriousness and type of offense; 2) The maturity of the individual in terms of home life, environment, emotional attitude, and living pattern; 3) The person's record and history; and 4) the possibility of rehabilitating the individual, as well as public protection issues.

According to Couthern, the ultimate outcome of the Supreme Court decision regarding the issue -- upheld until 2005 -- was that capital punishment under certain circumstances could be allowed in terms of societal standards of decency as determined by the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution for persons of 16 or 17 years, but not for those less than 15 years old. The issue remained well-debated, but also fairly well-settled until 2004.

According to VL Strieb (2004), the issue enjoyed reconsideration during this year. In addition to the minimum age set by the Supreme Court, it was also found that the Washington and Florida set the minimum age for the death penalty at 18 and 17 respectively, disregarding the general ruling of the Supreme Court. The United States Constitution furthermore prohibited the death penalty for juvenile and other offenders for mentally retarded persons.

In the 2003 case of Simmons v. Roper, the Supreme Court of Missouri found that the Eighth Amendment held, and that such punishment was cruel and unusual in this case. Although the decision held only for Missouri at the time, the United States Supreme Court agreed to hear it in October 2004, with a decision to be made early in 2005.

In 2004, several questions surrounded the cruel and unusual stipulation set by the Eighth

Amendment. Firstly, the question was how strong the cruel and unusual standard set by the United States Supreme Court should be held. Would lower courts be able to settle the matter on a state basis, as has been done in certain states to date? Secondly, at what age should the cruel and unusual standard be set according to the evolving ideal of the Eighth Amendment?

The issue at the time was widely divergent among death penalty jurisdictions. Of the 38 jurisdictions using the death penalty for capital crimes, 21 chose age 18 as the minimum eligible age for the ultimate punishment. Five jurisdiction chose age 17 and the remaining 14 chose age 16. Finally, the United States Supreme Court banned the death penalty for juvenile offenders in 2005, basing the decision upon Roper v. Simmons, as mentioned above.

The Nature of Juvenile Punishment and the Death Penalty Today

Michael Heise (2004, p. 108) notes that, although the majority of American citizens were for the death penalty until recently, this opinion seems to be changing gradually. This is especially so in terms of the juvenile death penalty. In a 2005 Christian Science Monitor article, Warren Richey writes about the abolition of the death penalty for juvenile offenders as a "landmark" decision that is encouraging in terms of the decency standards of the country. The decision is a reversal of 72 death sentences for murderers who were tried and sentenced as juveniles.

The author cites several opinions surrounding the decision, not all of whom are in agreement with the outcome. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruling itself included one dissenting opinion opposed to four who cast the deciding vote. Juvenile justice advocates such as Marsha Levick and Stephen Harper for example hail the decision as representative of American decency, while others are less positive.

Dissenting Justice Sandra Day O'Connor on the other hand feels that the majority is usurping the role of state lawmakers. Furthermore, she disagrees that death is disproportionately severe for an offender who is 17 years old. Instead, she believes that there are offenders of this age who are sufficiently mature to understand the potential consequences of their choices, just like adult offenders would. Furthermore, the high court is reported to have said that there was national consensus regarding the opposition to execution for juveniles. However, those in opposition cite the fact that 20 states have authorized this punishment of juvenile offenders in opposing this statement. The authorization of juvenile capital punishment by so many states is taken as proof that national consensus was nowhere near being reached on the issue.

Justice Anthony Kenney also believes that the differences between juvenile and adult offenders has been investigated in great depth. These differences are sufficiently well understood to also understand that the risk of wrongfully giving the death penalty is simply too great. He also believes that, like much else in society, a person is to be regarded as adult and capable of making adult decisions only when he or she is 18 years of age. This is also then the time at which the death penalty should… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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