It may be hard for many people to imagine that it was not until 2005, in the Roper V. Simmons ruling, that the Supreme Court decided children should not be sentenced to death.
Between 1976 and 2003, the US executed 22 people for crimes committed under the age of 18. If we look back to the colonial era, that number grows to approximately 365 people, according to DPIC.
In the following 15 years there have been an abundance of examples of the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders, including some previously on Death Row. What is also clear is that this “ability to rehabilitate” applies to many of the “young adults” serving Life Without Parole or Death sentences for crimes committed in their late teens or early twenties as well. Modern psychologists admit that people do change greatly between 18 and 25, and that propensity for violence decreases greatly as we age. What does that mean for the thousands of people between 18-25 that we decided could never be rehabilitated? And how should that affect the discussion about our legacy of executing juveniles?
In recent years, the American Bar Association, along with other legal and sociological experts, began calls to again raise the age of execution based on modern medical standards.
“On February 5,(2018) the American Bar Association (ABA) House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly to adopt a resolution calling for an end to the death penalty for offenders who were 21 or younger at the time of the crime. According to a report accompanying the resolution, “there is a growing medical consensus that key areas of the brain relevant to decision-making and judgment continue to develop into the early twenties.”
In 2014, lawyer Hollis A. Whitson published a report on “youth” executions noting that the executions of young adults(under 21) unfairly targets people of color at an increased rate even from the death penalty overall. Noting of our own state, “In Texas, since 2000, over 76% of those executed who were ages 18, 19, and 20 years old at the time of the offenses were minorities.”
He also notes that youth are less likely to be deterred by possible punishments, including the death penalty. In regards to their culpability he states, “Minors under age 21 are inherently less capable of being deterred by the prospect of an uncertain future punishment, because they are less able to project into the future, to envision the consequences of their actions, and to apprehend the relevance of an uncertain future cost.” If the death penalty does not effectively deter youth violence, this also indicates the need for a re-assessment of strategies for changing culture and actions to prevent violence. Many juvenile and youthful offenders have found purpose in mentoring younger people and trying to discourage violence in their communities, which is something that could be gained by reducing the sentences of those on Death Row.
If the Supreme Court, or even specific states, were to adapt these ideas about decreased culpability and the ability of youth to change and re-enter society successfully, it would undoubtedly apply to dozens, if not hundreds, of those currently on Death Rows across the US. The question is whether we are willing to give these men and women, who have essentially grown up on Death Row, a chance to show the potential value of their lives.
- ABA Resolution on Ending Death Penalty for Offenders Age 21 or Younger: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/node/7006
- Report by Hollis A Whitson: The Case Against Execution of People who Were Youths Under the Age of Twenty -One Years Old at the Time of the Offense
- DPIC list of Juveniles Executed: https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/execution-juveniles-us-and-other-countries