A major victory for minors
March 2, 2005
There's a reason adolescents are overrepresented in every form of reckless behavior. Sometimes they lack the judgment, the impulse control, the maturity and the character to resist harmful peer pressure.
Every parent knows this. So do most legislators. That's why young people are prohibited from serving on juries, voting, marrying, serving in the armed forces and drinking.
The U.S. Supreme Court now knows this, too. In a landmark ruling Tuesday, the court found that it is unconstitutional to put to death those who were under age 18 at the time of their crime. A 5-4 majority of justices acknowledged what common sense already tells us: Adolescents inherently are different from adults.
"From a moral standpoint it would be misguided to equate the failings of a minor with those of an adult, for a greater possibility exists that a minor's character deficiencies will be reformed," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote for the majority.
Brain research backs that up. Imaging technology shows that the frontal lobe--the area of the brain that governs judgment, decision-making and impulse control--doesn't fully develop until one's early 20s.
The high court acknowledged a changing "national consensus" against the death penalty for juvenile offenders, similar to the argument used nearly three years ago when it banned the execution of the mentally retarded. As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote in a concurring opinion to the case decided Tuesday, if standards of decency hadn't evolved from the time of the framers, we might be executing 7-year-olds today.
There are 31 states that prohibit the death penalty for 16- and 17-year-olds. In the last decade, only three states--Texas, Virginia and Oklahoma--have executed people who were juveniles at the time of their crimes.
The majority on the high court found it worth noting that the trend for the last 15 years has been for states to move away from capital punishment for juveniles, even while anti-crime legislation and tougher overall treatment of juvenile crime has remained politically popular.
The court majority also said the U.S. was "alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty."
Since 1990, Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo and China--the last nations outside of the U.S. to execute teen offenders--have either eliminated or publicly disavowed the juvenile death penalty. "The opinion of the world community, while not controlling our outcome, does provide respected and significant confirmation for our own conclusions," the court said.
The immediate impact will be that 72 people who were juveniles at the time of their crimes will no longer face execution. For most of them, that will mean life without possibility of parole.
That still reflects the moral outrage of the community over depraved acts. It also better reflects the notion in this country that punishment be reasonable and commensurate to the offense--and the offender.
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