The Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, adopted as part of the Bill of Rights in 1791 as a protection on individual rights, bans infliction of cruel and unusual punishment. Practically, this law forbids some punishments entirely, and others that are excessive compared to the crime or capacity of the person who committed it. The main question that arises with regard to applying and enforcing this constitutional right is ‘What constitutes cruel and unusual punishments, and under what circumstances does the punishment become considered excessive?’
Should juveniles be excluded from the death penalty? At what age should the line be drawn?
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declared in Roper v. Simmons that executing minors (persons under the age of 18) constituted cruel and unusual punishment. In the 30 years prior to this determination, cases came before the court with the same issue of the question of the executing/capital punishment applied to minors and, if so, beginning at what age. While capital punishment was recognized as legal for adults, the issue was whether and under the circumstances of juvenile crime, it constituted “cruel and unusual punishment.”
Since 1973, 22 people were executed for crimes that they committed at age 16 or 17. Even where the crime was committed in a particularly heinous, atrocious, and cruel manner, I do not believe that persons with juvenile status should be subject to capital punishment. As Justice Scalia said in Stanford v. Kentucky, “we ought not to be executing people who legally were children.” In this case, a crime committed when defendant was 17-years old was changed from a death sentence to a sentence of life imprisonment. Courts and legislators often disagree about age standards. For example, age that persons can attain a drivers license, vote, buy and drink alcohol, and when they can be tried as adults. In three states (including New York) persons are tried as adults at age 16; in nine states, persons begin to be tried as adults at age 17. Why not have uniform age standards, even if only within each state?
There are strong arguments on both sides of the death penalty for juvenile’s debate:
- One aspect of the debate is who should make the determination and draw the age line at which death penalty would not constitute cruel and unusual punishment. Some believe that this decision should be left to the legislature to decide and not subject to judicial review. But, on the other hand, judicial review is a deeply settled element to the balance of our government since the landmark case of Marbury v. Madison decided by Chief Justice John Marshall in 1803. An additional opinion is that the decision to execute should be left in the hands of a jury and decided on a case-by-case basis.
- Another aspect of the debate is the policy. On one side, people think that executing children is immoral and uncivilized. Scientific research shows that juveniles are underdeveloped and immature, particularly in areas of the brain that dictate reason, impulse control and decision-making. On the other side, banning death penalty in a society experiencing increasing juvenile crime would remove a much-needed deterrent.
Where do you stand?