When the Constitution of the United States was created, basic laws were enacted in order to ensure the freedoms of the people. At that time, however, the justice system had not been deeply established and there were many things the government had yet to deal with. One of these issues is the death penalty, which remains a controversial subject for many today and is an important topic to consider regarding the underage criminal population. Opinions vary depending on the state and political party, although the United States has come to various conclusions about how people will be punished for various crimes. More specifically, the death penalty in accordance with juveniles is very different, as it is now stated that no one under the age of 18 may be sentenced to death. This became a Supreme Court ruling after the Roper vs. Simmons case in which a 17-year-old was convicted of and sentenced to death for murdering a woman. Then, the government began to reconsider existing laws in order to develop various conclusions regarding children and teenagers. The following paper will examine the history of the death penalty, exactly what occurred during the case and why children are considered different under the eyes of the law. Then, this information can be used to conclude why the justice system is the way that it is today.
Death Penalty for Juveniles in the Criminal Justice System
Over the years, the death penalty has become an increasingly controversial issue within the United States population. This brings up the question of whether serious offenders who pose or have posed threats to society should be punished by having their lives taken away from them. Those who argue against the death penalty believe that too many people have been wrongfully accused of crimes. Those who believe in the death penalty believe that people who commit severe crimes should be severely punished because it is only fair. At this time, the United States as a whole has been unable to come to a national conclusion regarding this issue, which is why there are different laws in each state and different methods of execution (FindLaw, 2018). Despite this, the general consensus regarding juveniles and the potential to be punished with death is a different issue entirely and more unified. The Supreme Court of the United States has determined that the execution of people under the age of 18 at the time of their crimes violates the Eighth Amendment (Capital Punishment in Context, 2018). These convicted criminals can only be put in jail or punished in other ways; they cannot be sentenced to death. Therefore, it is evident that the idea of executing juveniles serves neither as a deterrence nor a retribution. Since these supposed criminals are aware that they are protected against the death penalty, they are not concerned about it at all when involved in crimes.
In order to determine the impact of the justice system in accordance with underage citizens, it is important to examine past statistics before there were laws put in place to prevent these children from being killed. According to Linn (2016), 226 juvenile death sentences have been imposed since 1973. (Linn, 2016) Of these 226 offenders, 22 have been executed and 82 remain on death row. (Linn, 2016) Several of them were executed before the law was changed, which suggests that they committed very horrible acts against members of the public and caused harm to society. At the time, either the national government or the state government believed that they posed such a threat that it was necessary to eliminate them from society. The juveniles that remain on death row have probably not currently been killed because the law protects against them under a certain age. Their fates will be determined according to the circumstances, the state in which the crime was committed and any future adjustments to the national United States law regarding the death penalty.
Linn (2016) is able to provide even more shocking statistics in regards to the history of juveniles being sentenced to death for crimes. As stated before, 226 total children have received the death sentence. Between 1974 and 2005, the number of these people sentenced to death was 22. This was when the United States officially abolished the punishment for people under 16 years old in the year 1988 (Linn, 2016). This change in the law was implemented due to a specific case called “Roper vs. Simmons”. This involved a 17-year-old boy who kidnapped his neighbor, Shirley Cook, tied her up and threw her off of a bridge to her death (Weiner, 2005). After being sentenced to death, Simmons appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled that it is unconstitutional to do this to someone under the age of 18. Although his role in this crime was strictly evaluated and the outcome was tragic, the law protected Simmons from being killed and instead, he was put in jail on a life sentence.
Weiner (2005) writes that juveniles “lack maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility” which can result in “impetuous and ill-considered actions”. For many of these children, they have not experienced many things out in the real world and therefore, do not have a handle on life like adults do. Since teenagers do not always see the potential for certain consequences, they often act without thinking. Some may feel remorse after the crime has been committed, but in that case, it would be too late. This lack of care for actions or the well-being of others can lead to actions being carried out based on impulse or immediate desires. In other words, teenagers will often think about actions in the moment and not consider the turnout or aftermath.
Juveniles are also “more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures” (Weiner, 2005). This is one of the reasons why peer pressure is so prominent in adolescents. When influenced by a large group of people or various trends, teenagers often do things simply because they want to fit in or feel accepted. They do not wish to feel like outsiders or be rejected by peers. Therefore, teenagers will often do things that they don’t necessarily agree with, just because others are doing it. In the case of the “Ropers vs. Simmons case”, two other teenagers were involved with the killing of the woman, which could have resulted in them acting simply because they were encouraging one another. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, it is difficult for teenagers to take a step back and reflect on their actions, especially if they are being pressured by friends. Adults, on the other hand, are more developed and have the experience that is required to form their own opinions and think critically in a difficult situation. Obviously, these facts do not justify killings, but it would explain why juveniles often do not act with malicious intent; they are simply not experienced enough to form their own opinions and think before they follow through with certain actions. Teenagers also may not have a greater concept of life and death which is why a lot of them do not realize the weight of their decisions when committing serious crimes and harming others.
Finally, Weiner (2005) claims that “the character of a juvenile is not as well formed”(page 1195) so “personality traits of juveniles are transitory.”(page 1195) It is almost easier to categorize adults because they have certain responsibilities that are dictated by society, such as working a regular job, supporting a family, paying bills, performing everyday tasks, etc. However, children and teens find themselves in a more transitory period because they are trying to discover meaning, figure out what they want to do and fit in while attempting to make it in the real world. Therefore, they experience a lot of difficult decisions and can be very emotional and confused. With this in mind, the Supreme Court determined that this is why it is important to protect children under the age of 18 against the death penalty. Since they do not have the same ability to think and act like adults due to their ages and other similar factors, they cannot reason or make amends with their actions in the same ways.
Today, the laws regarding the death penalty are regarding first degree homicide. First, orders fall into either incarceration or non-incarceration, meaning being imprisoned or not (Capital Punishment in Context, 2018). Punishments for juveniles certainly differ for those of adults due to the reasons outlined above; however, the rights of the Fifth, Sixth and Eighth amendment’s still apply when being accused of a crime. Therefore, a juvenile has the right to counsel, the right to confront and cross-examine adverse witnesses and the right to remain silent (FindLaw, 2018). The laws of the United States are consistently evolving and have evolved over time, but right now, juveniles under the age of 18 are protected against the death penalty.
Based on the decision in Roper v. Simmons all states were required to comply with the ruling as established in Article VI, Paragraph 2 of the United States Constitution. Commonly referred to as the Supremacy Clause Article VI, Paragraph 2 established that federal law is supreme over all other laws established by state governments. (Jurkowsk, 2017) As a result the death penalty is prohibited in all states for those under the age of 18 when the offence was committed. (Death Penalty Information Center, 2018) Despite the Supreme Court Ruling some states continue to sentence juveniles to death, while the ruling prohibits the execution of offenders who fall under the protection of the ruling it does not change the fact that states can still sentence these offenders to death. (Adepoju, 2007)
The founders of the Constitution understood that to create a document that would stand the test of time the Constitution had to be a “living document “, and live and grow as our nation would. In the majority opinion for Roper v. Simmons it was the view of the court that when determining which punishments are “so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual” (Cox, n.d.) can change over time. The majority opinion as written by Justice Kennedy went on to state the Constitution’s meaning must throughout the course of time be reinterpreted. (Williams, 2005) Take for example in the eighteenth century it was common practice to have public executions, branding of offenders, and the use of gallows. (Cox, n.d.) The use of such punishments today is considered cruel and unusual, though were used in standard practice at one point in time. The decision of the court in Roper v. Simmons demonstrate the progress of a modern society and evolving views.
- Adepoju, A. (2007, Janurary). Juvenile Death Senctence Lives On Even after Roper v. Simmons. Retrieved from University of Massachusetts Law Review: https://scholarship.law.umassd.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1063&context=umlr
- Cox, J. A. (n.d.). History. Retrieved from Colonial Crimes and Punishments: http://www.history.org/foundation/journal/spring03/branks.cfm
- Death Penalty Information Center. (2018, October 22). Execution of Juveniles in the U.S. and other Countries. Retrieved from Death Penalty Information Center: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/execution-juveniles-us-and-other-countries
- Death Penalty Laws by State. (2018). Retrieved from FindLaw: https://criminal.findlaw.com/criminal-procedure/death-penalty-laws-by-state.html
- Jurkowsk, S. (2017, June). Supremacy Clause. Retrieved from Cornell Law: https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/supremacy_clause
- Linn, A. (2016, Feburary 16). History of Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders. Retrieved from JJIE: https://jjie.org/2016/02/13/history-of-death-penalty-for-juvenile-offenders/
- RICHARD L. WIENER, P. (2005, June). Outlawing the juvenile death penalty. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/monitor/jun05/jn.aspx
- The Death Penalty for Juviniles. (2018). Retrieved from Capital Punishment in Context: https://capitalpunishmentincontext.org/issues/juveniles
- Williams, C. (2005). The Juvenile Death Penalty. Retrieved from American Bar: https://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/insights_law_society/lawreview_Insightsspring05.pdf
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