A16 year old boy is at the peak of their adolescent life, learning anddiscovering about puberty, maturity, right and wrong and future life goals. Onthe other hand, a man of 25 has matured, lived long enough to have made bothgood and bad judgments and has already been in the process of achieving thoselife goals they once thought of as a teenager.
In a given situation, is itethical to hold these two age groups, with mentalities that are worlds apart,to the same standards and punishments in the justice system? Until Roper v.Simmons in 2005, the justice system did just that, treat the actions of 16 yearold with the same consequences as if they had been committed by an adult. InRoper v. Simmons the United States Supreme Court declared it unconstitutionalto sentence a juvenile under the age of 18 to the death penalty. Before, Roperv. Simmons, in Thompson v.
Oklahoma it had been decided that only those underthe age of 16 could not be considered for the death penalty. Were thesedecisions correct? If an adolescent can commit such a heinous crime as homicideshould they not also be able then to handle the consequences? The other side ofthe argument against the juvenile death penalty states that juveniles do nothave the same reasoning skills as an adult and therefore cannot be held to samecriminal blameworthiness. Factswill show that the United States Supreme Court was correct in their decision toban the death penalty for all those under the age of eighteen. Recent brainimaging scans have shown that an adolescent’s brain is not fully developeduntil late in adolescence causing them to be immature, have diminished decisionmaking capacity and underdeveloped reasoning and thinking skills (Aronson,2007); qualities which most adults possess. Furthermore psychiatric evaluationon minor death row inmates has found that many come from backgrounds of abuseand neglect and have received inadequate treatment. Is it then ethical to sentencea person with undeveloped reasoning and thinking skills to the death penalty ifthey cannot fully comprehend the consequences of their actions? If adolescentsare being considered to have diminished reasoning and thinking skills, how thendo they compare the mentally ill? Do the same standards apply? If so, then thecase of Atkins v.
Virginia, in which it was declared by the U.S. Supreme Courtthat the mentally handicapped would not be sentenced to the death penalty,would be essential to the cause opposing juvenile death penalty. It is notdenied that these juveniles have committed horrendous crimes and should be heldaccountable for their actions, but certain mitigating circumstances negate theneed for a death penalty.Inthe United Sates, the first juvenile death penalty recorded occurred in 1642 ofa minor under the age of 18 and the youngest person ever given the deathpenalty was ten-year old James Arcene in 1885 for robbery and murder (Strater,1994-1995). By 1994 there were only 9 states, among which were New Jersey,Kansas, and Maryland, that prohibited the death penalties for juveniles. In2003 the number of states permitting capital punishment declined to 21, anumber of them allowing this punishment to those as young as 16 (Steinberg , 2003). Since the days of the first juvenile execution approximately 362more juveniles have been executed (Child Welfare League of America, 2002).
TheInternational Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) run by the UnitedNation’s (UN) Human Rights Committee sets guidelines for international law. Oneof the prohibitions of the ICCPR is the sentencing to death of offenders underthe age of eighteen. The UN takes it a step further by outlawing lifeimprisonment without possibility of parole. While these are standards that allnations should abide by, several countries including Iran, Pakistan, SaudiArabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates and Yemen still allow the death penalty forminors (Amensty International Ltd, 2011).
TheUnited States Supreme Court first imposed an age minimum for capital punishmentin the 1988 case of Thompson v. Oklahoma. William Thompson at the age of 15 wascharged with the brutal murder of his former brother-in-law. Because he was 15at the time of the crime, prosecution petitioned to have him tried as an adult,which was granted. Thompson was then convicted of first degree murder andsentenced to death. When the case reached the U.S.
Supreme Court they used the”evolving standards of decency” set forth by Trop v. Dulles (1958) to declarethe death penalty on minors under 16 to be “cruel and unusual punishment”(Thompson v. Oklahoma, 1988).
Similarly using the “evolving standards ofdecency” to amend who should not be sentenced to the death penalty was the U.S.Supreme Court’s decision in Atkins v. Virginia in 2002. In this case, eighteenyear old Daryl Renard Atkins was convicted and sentenced to death for capitalmurder. During the penalty phase of the trial, evidence was introduced ofAtkins’ low I.
Q. considering him to be mildly retarded (Daryl Renard Atkins,Petitioner v. Virginia, 2002). Using the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel andunusual punishment,” the United States Supreme Court found the death penaltyunconstitutional when applied to the mentally retarded (Daryl Renard Atkins,Petitioner v. Virginia, 2002).In September, 1993,Christopher Simmons and an accomplice entered the home of Shirley Crook,kidnapped and murdered her. Simmons was 17 at the time the crime occurred.
Hewas tried as an adult, convicted of murder and sentenced to capital punishment.In light of recent state legislatures changing their law to increase theminimum age for a death sentence, Simmons’ lawyers petitioned the United StatesSupreme Court to reevaluate their stance on the juvenile death penalty. TheSupreme Court granted certiorari. This time, new scientific and psychosocialevidence was presented to demonstrate that the brain continues to develop wellinto late adolescence (Aronson, 2007). It was also argued that adolescentslacked the maturity and capability to understand the long-term consequences oftheir crimes to truly be held culpable. In a landmark decision, the U.S.Supreme Court held that in light of new scientific data as well as the growingconsensus against the juvenile death penalty, it would be unconstitutional tosentence a minor less than eighteen years to death (Roper, Superintendent,Potosi Correctional Center v.
Simmons, 2005).Focusingfurther on a topic that affected the decision in Roper v. Simmons, consideringtheir inept ability to make clear, conscious judgments, can adolescents beplaced in the same culpable category as adults? According to Steinberg andScott (2003) there are four factors that play a role in the decision making ofadolescents. These factors are “susceptibility to peer influence, attitudestoward and perception of risk, future orientation and the capacity forself-management” (Steinberg & Scott, 2003). All four factors are moreprofound in youths than they are in adults, which is why adolescents will havea more diminished decision making capacity.
Adults have a better ability toresist the peer pressure of others, whereas younger individuals are more easilyinfluenced by their peers and the need to be socially accepted. Teenagers areriddled by the need to fit in with their peers and will go through far lengthsto act and think the way their friends do, even if they do not always agreewith the actions. On the other hand, adults have, for the most part, developeda personality of their own and are not easily influenced by others. Youths alsolack the ability to look into the future and make the majority of theirdecisions based on short-term consequences or outcomes (Steinberg & Scott,2003). In a study where adults and adolescents were asked to provide advice toa person in a risky situation, it was adults that were better able to view boththe positive and negative outcomes of the situations. Adolescents only lookedinto the short-term effects. A theory presented by Steinberg and Scott (2003)is that because of their short lifespan, adolescents are unable to compare thevalue of future consequences. Results in the near future are more likely tooccur than something 10, 20 or 30 years from now.
Similar to their inability toaccess near or future consequences properly, juveniles are also unable tocorrectly assess risk (Brief for the American Psychological Association, andthe Missouri Psychological Association as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondent,2004). A teenager’s impulsivity does not allow for sufficient time to weigh thepros and cons of risky situations. It is their tendency to consider smallerrewards over larger consequences. Also a factor is peer pressure. It is morelikely for a person to engage in risky behavior when in groups. Adolescents undergoan intense period of emotional and hormonal changes, which leads to theirinability to properly manage or control themselves and can lead to impulsiveactions (Brief for the American Psychological Association, and the MissouriPsychological Association as Amici Curiae Supporting Respondent, 2004).
Aminor’s incapacity to appropriately reason the pros and cons of any situationhas a crucial effect on whether they can logically be held responsible in thesame way as an adult for the same actions.Tofurther distinguish the way a juvenile thinks compared to how an adult does,are neurobiological studies on brain development. In Roper v. Simmons thedefense presented evidence through magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) that thebrain continues to develop well into late adolescence and even early adulthood.Some studies even suggest that the brain continues to mature into the thirddecade of life (Aronson, 2007). MRI allows scientist to view the structure ofthe brain and the differences in neuronal activity while the person is stillalive (Paus, 2005). For better understanding of the results of these MRI scansit is necessary to have basic knowledge about the functional parts thatcomprise the brain. The cerebral cortex is made up of gray matter and coversthe surface of the cerebrum and cerebellum of the brain.
Grey matter is thearea of the brain where processes end and is involved in memory, hearing,muscle movement, speech and emotions (National Institute of NeurologicalDisorders and Stroke, 2010). The white matter of the brain is responsible forsending messages to and from the grey matter to other parts of the body.Studies performed by the Child Psychiatry Branch of the National Institute ofMental Health have demonstrated that white matter continues to develop andincrease in number until approximately 21 years of age (Paus, 2005). Smootherand larger number of pathways supported by the white matter allow for bettercommunications to and from the frontal cortex to other parts of the brain. Thisis important in the case of adolescence because the frontal cortex is the areaof the brain dedicated to higher order thinking and behavior management(Aronson, 2007). In other words, the executive functions that take place inthis portion of the brain include working memory and one’s ability to respondto inhibitions.
The frontal lobe, the area where the frontal cortex is located,is also responsible for risk assessment, decision making and emotions and isthought to be one of the areas in the brain to take longest to develop. Theincrease in white matter as one matures into adult is accompanied with adecrease in grey matter. One explanation for this can be pruning, the processin which connections that are not used are removed, allowing for the remainingconnections to become much stronger (Aronson, 2007). All this informationsuggests that the brain continues to develop well into late adolescence.
Untilthe areas of the brain where cognitive and executive functions have fullymatured it is unreasonable to think of a juvenile as having the same thoughtprocessing and decision making skills as an adult. Asa result of this information it may be easier now to understand how the Atkinsv. Virginia case can be associated with the juvenile death penalty. Withoutundermining the gravity of the situation of a person with mental challenges, weare able to point out that in both instances there is an inability for theindividual to apply logical and reasonable decisions. While some more thanothers, both are unable to appropriately evaluate the consequences of theiractions and are equally influenced by peer pressure. In both instances, thereis also physical evidence of undeveloped or underdeveloped brain activity.Considering the parallels of these two groups of individuals one wouldquestions why at one point they were held under different standards in thejustice system.
Withthe information provided we are now able to better analyze the decision of theUnited States Supreme Court in Roper v. Simmons to determine whether they followedthe correct protocol in making their verdict. Putting aside the ethical dilemmathat it is to determine who has the right to death the death of another person,have the judges properly applied their code of ethics. Interestingly enough,the United States Supreme Court does not have a code of ethics, therefore thestandards for which the Code of Conduct for United States Judges, although doesnot apply to the Supreme Court Justices, will be used to determine if the lawwas applied properly.
Concentrating on Canon 3 of the Code of Conduct forUnited States Judges (Appendix A) which states that “A judge should perform theduties of the office fairly, impartially and diligently,” we can assess whetherthe judges were fair and impartial in their decision (Committe on Codes ofConduct, 2011). A Judge’s role in sentencing is to determine the type ofpunishment that is proportionate to the crime that was committed. If it isproven that the defendant consciously intended to carry out the crime, thenthey should be punished to the fullest extent of the law. However, if there aremitigating circumstances, such as a diminished mental capacity as often seen injuveniles, the judge must take this information into account at sentencing anda more lenient punishment should be given. Given this information and thescientific information provided above, I believe that the judges were correctin deciding the Roper v. Simmons case in considering the juvenile death penaltyunconstitutional.
The Justices considered all the facts both locally within theUnited States as well as internationally in order to come a fair and impartialdecision. The took notice of the states taking measures against juvenile deathpenalties and concluded it violated that Eighth’s Amendment of “cruel andunusual punishment.”Stepping away from thejudge’s role in the controversy of juvenile capital punishment, it is necessaryto also consider the medical doctors who have performed the executions. As aperson enters the medical field they are required upon to take part in theHippocratic Oath, in which it states “I will do no harm or injustice to them”(North, 2002). This particular line is often taken as meaning that a physicianmust save lives not take them away. Bringing up the questions then, how can aphysician ethically take part in the execution of any person, let alone a minoror someone mentally handicapped? It is a physician’s duty to promote health andthis would include even psychology not just physical wellbeing.
If it ispossible to rehabilitate and offending juvenile, then that would be the betterchoice rather than killing them.The ethical role of thestates involved in the protection of the welfare of children is also broughtinto question, especially for those states that at one point allowed to thejuvenile death penalty. The state’s parent’s patriate authority is in clearconflict with capital punishment for minors. This position of the state is toaccount for the best interest of the child. It also clearly distinguishes thefact that the states believe minors under the age of 18 different from adultsas they are unable to care for themselves (Strater, 1994-1995). How is it thenthat a state that does everything in its power to protect a child from harmwould also permit the execution of a child? It is a great contradiction to thestates job as protector of children.Withall the data collected and numerous examples of how teenagers are unable tofully comprehend the significance of their actions, there are still those whobelieve that the juvenile death penalty should still apply.
A large belief isthat if these youngsters are able to commit such a “grown-up” crime then theyshould be treated as such. People who are pro juvenile capital punishment findpast history of abuse or neglect irrelevant to the cases. An adolescent’spsychological state is irrelevant in deciding sentencing. If they canunderstand that murder is wrong then they know it should not be done and doingso will have severe consequences. Justice for the victims is often anotherguiding factor for those approving of the juvenile death penalty. Another issueof concern is that if these criminals are not given the most extreme punishmentthen we are leaving them the opportunity to act in a criminal manner again.
Forthe public’s protection, some deem it necessary to carry out these harsh andunfair sentences. By having more severe punishments for these offenders,advocates of the juvenile death penalty argue that it sends out a strongermessage to fellow delinquents (Child Welfare League of America, 2002). Insightinto the rights of adolescents for other decisions that they may have to make,such as abortion or birth control, can also support the argument allowingjuvenile death penalty. If it is thought that these juvenile have diminishedreasoning skills then how is it that they can be allowed to make life changingdecisions in other aspects of their life? This is a consequence that needs tobe considered by the argument against juvenile capital punishment.
Whenthe first juvenile justice system was developed its goal was to make juvenilesaccountable for their behavior, but at the same time provide the necessarytreatment for rehabilitation (Child Welfare League of America, 2002). This roleof the justice system to rehabilitate offenders has changed over the years to amore punitive system. This is not the correct direction that needs to be taken.These individuals that have lived difficult lives and are incapable ofunderstanding their decisions, they need more help than punishment. We havedetermined that there are many mitigating factors that go into the actions of aperson and they all must be taken into consideration. If the most extreme formof punishment is not the appropriate one for these offenders then how should theybe handled? Setting them free is not an option; they did commit a crime anddeserve some type of castigation. A sentence often imposed instead of the deathpenalty is life sentence without the possibility of parole.
While important forthe safety of the public, it is not a solution for the underlying issues of theoffenders. More suitable consequences are needed based on each individual’scircumstances. Severe psychological treatment is the utmost importance forthese offenders in order to determine where their incapacities stem from.Without finding the root of the problem, there can be no treatment.
Psychological treatment will aid in the restoration of delinquent juveniles,but natural brain development must be taken into consideration. It must be acceptedthat child of the age of 12 will not have the same understanding as a person of18, partly due to psychological impairments, but also due to their naturalimmaturity and brain development.Thetruth is that there is no simple answer to this ethical dilemma. The evidenceis in support for the abolishment of the juvenile death penalty. As humans weare unable to hold a child responsible to the fullest extent of the law for acrime that they cannot even comprehend. Their diminished decision makingcapacity, as well as other psychosocial pressures from being in such aninfluential age, disables them from weighing the correct and wrong choicesreasonably in order to obtain the correct outcome. Aside from their past lifeexperiences that may shape their views and the choices they make, science hasproven that in general adolescents do not have the same brain level maturity asadults. Brain development in some of the most important human functions, suchas risk assessment and long-term planning, continues well into late adolescenceand early adulthood.
Physically if these juvenile offenders cannot form theproper thought processes in their decision making as an adult can, then theyshould not be held to the same criminal blameworthiness.