Today, crime among youngsters below the age of 18 has become a matter of serious concern in every country. Although many factors can be attributed for the increasing criminal mindedness among children and adolescents, according to psychologists children today are lacking the social and emotional bonding from families and peers. Violence is becoming a common way of expressing anger and frustration by today’s youngsters and for this responsibility falls on both parents and teachers. It is their responsibility to instill in a child the sense of right and wrong, and the virtues of good behavior. Historically, only 2 percent of capital punishment was juvenile execution since a large number of capital punishment imposed on children was either reversed or commuted. Often public opinion is considered, but “it is critical to distinguish between judging what is cruel and unusual punishment and what should become policy for such issues as capital punishment” (Kalbeitzer & Goldstein, 174). This paper focuses on different perspectives regarding this sensitive issue.
Death penalty for juveniles
Unlike many developed countries, United States is still embracing capital punishment for serious offenders. One major objective of juvenile criminal system “is to hold juvenile offenders accountable for delinquent acts while providing treatment, rehabilitative services, and programs designed to prevent future involvement in law-violating behavior” (Cothern, 1). The juvenile court was established in Chicago in 1889 in order to protect the juvenile offenders from receiving rough treatment in the criminal justice system. The juvenile court accepted that adults and children have different developmental capacities; therefore it advocated rehabilitation as alternative for capital punishment in case of children. However due to the growing number of young people getting involved in criminal activities in the turn of this century, the juvenile justice system has become more prone towards more rigid policies and stricter punishments. It now happens that children below the age of 18 who have committed capital crimes are subjected to the ultimate form of punishment like the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole. Supporters of juvenile death penalty see it as a way to deter other young people from committing similar kinds of crimes, and a way to maintain public safety (Cothern, 1-2). As of 2000, more than two-third of all independent states advocate death penalty. In 1999, 30 offenders were executed other than 3,500 others who were on death row. Even research studies have shown that majority of Americans (66 percent) advocate death penalty especially for those who have been convicted of murders. The question now lies whether the same Americans support the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Of the 3,500 who were on death row in 1999, almost all of them were adults although 70 of them had committed their crimes when they were below the age of 18 (Moon et al., 664). In December 2004, America had 72 juveniles who had their death sentence pending amongst whom 70 percent committed the crimes at the age of 17 while the other 30 percent at the age of 16. In America, the idea of imposing capital punishment on juvenile offenders was adopted from the English common law. Under this law, it was believed that children below the age of 7 cannot have the mental capacity to commit a crime and therefore they cannot be convicted of capital offence. For children between 7 and 14 years, the evidence needed was much stronger than their adult counterparts. Finally, children who were 15 years and above were considered having equal intentions and capacities as adults to commit crime (Kalbeitzer & Goldstein, 158).
For several reasons, it can be stated that capital punishment for juvenile offenders is justified. One reason is the increasing number of criminal activities and growing violence among children and adolescents. Such steady rise of juvenile offenders leads to the assumption that they are beyond redemption. Today scholars are stating “that attitudes about crimes are complex; they are not measured accurately through the one-item questions that often appear in national opinion polls” (Moon et al., 679). There are innumerous instances where children and adolescents have committed serious crimes like rape, murder, inhuman torture and so on. Although it is true that most children are not criminal minded, it can nevertheless be argued that when such offences are committed by children, the society begins to look for answers like their upbringing, education, social and economic status thereby deviating from the fact that they have committed a grave crime that requires equally harsh punishment. Most of the times, those who are against capital punishment state that it is an irreversible form of punishment which means there is a risk that an innocent person may be provided the death sentence. However, supporters of death sentence for juvenile offenders claim that “there are enough safeguards in the criminal justice system to avoid executing innocent persons” (Joseph, 114).
Criticisms against the issue
The general public opinion is that children, especially those who are below the age of 18, do not think and act as adults. Therefore criminal law focuses on making children aware of the consequences of bad actions and tries to protect them, if they make wrong choice, by providing them another chance. Treating children separate from adults, the former are not allowed to vote, join the military force and many other fields. However, many states in the United States support capital punishment for those criminals who have committed crimes before the age of 18. Today, US Supreme Court has prohibited execution for crimes committed at or below the age of fifteen. The underlying perspective is that “while adolescents can and should be held accountable for their actions, new scientific information demonstrates that they can not fairly be held accountable to the same extent as adults” (“Juveniles and the Death Penalty”). Medical science states that proper cognitive development does not finish before adulthood resulting in adolescents often reacting harshly on impulse and easily making wrong judgement of right and wrong. Thus, these children often remain unaware of the consequences of their action. From a psychologist’s perspective, children and adolescents are more vulnerable towards peer pressure than their adult counterparts. Since their views can be easily modulated due to their undeveloped cognitive skills, therefore peer influence can easily provoke them to step beyond their normal behavioral boundaries. Since, children are not developed in their thinking process therefore they can be easily manipulated by other hardcore criminals to commit crimes. Often their innocence or lack of understanding is taken advantage of during the investigation of a criminal case. Children can easily be threatened or coerced to admit in court doing certain crimes which they actually have not committed. Since the objective of any criminal justice system is to “give the harshest punishment to the worst offender”, therefore juveniles, because of their emotional immaturity, are considered as capable of reformation and so they are not considered as incorrigible offenders (“Juveniles and the Death Penalty”).
Considering the growing number of juvenile criminals in every country, it is not easy to support any one view regarding the issue of capital punishment for children. Children are no doubt the future of every society, and their well-being can secure a sound future for any country. When a young person commits a crime, the fault is more on his upbringing. Young children more often than not act out of impulse and therefore capital punishment is often not justified. Focus should be given on helping a child to grow and develop in a suitable environment with adequate attention given by parents and teachers. Rather than giving them death sentences, it is wise to provide them an environment that will not provoke a child to do wrong actions.
Cothern, Lynn. “Juveniles and the Death Penalty”, U.S. Deptt. of Justice. November, 2000, May 13, 2014 from: https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/ojjdp/184748.pdf
Joseph, Janice. Black Youth, Delinquency, and Juvenile Justice, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1995
“Juveniles and the Death Penalty”, ACLU. May 11, 2004, May 13, 2014 from: https://www.aclu.org/capital-punishment/juveniles-and-death-penalty
Kalbeitzer, Rachel & Naomi E. Sevin Goldstein “Assessing the ‘evolving standards of decency:’ Perceptions of Capital Punishment for Juveniles”, Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 24.2 (2002) 157-178
Moon, Melissa M. et al. “Putting kids to death: specifying public support for juvenile capital punishment”, Justice Quarterly, 17.4 (2000) 663-684