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Juveniles and the Death Penalty

The 1990’s have emerged as a decade in which many humanitarian causes have made headline news, one of them being the sentencing of America’s (and the world’s) youth to death row for crimes committed before they reached the legal age of majority. In the United States laws vary from state to state as to what age a juvenile convicted of a serious crime may be sentenced to death. In 1988 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose the death penalty on a person who had committed the offense when aged fifteen or younger. Juveniles and the Death PenaltyIn some states, special consideration is supposedly given to those youths who have suffered from child abuse or an otherwise traumatic childhood yet there is no evidence to suggest courts have access to such information or even consider it when they do. Since the states differ in the age a juvenile can be condemned to death, a juvenile who commits murder in Ohio at the age of seventeen cannot be sentenced to death while a juvenile who commits the same offense in New York can be.

According to statistics, between 1990 and September 1995, 36 persons who were under the age of 18 were sentenced to death, the majority of them being from the state of Texas . While proponents are loud and vocal on both sides of this issue, there are many justifiable and proven reasons why juveniles should not be sentenced to the death penalty, many of which are given below.

Much of the criticism surrounding sentencing juveniles to death row centers on the hypocrisy involved. For instance, juveniles under the age of 18 cannot vote, buy cigarettes, or join the armed services. In some states juveniles under the age of 18 cannot buy liquor, while other states set the minimum age for buying alcohol at 21. The reasons for these governmental standards are clearly spelled out; juveniles below this minimum age do not have the reasoning skills and the judgment necessary to make sound and responsible choices. This reasoning is conspicuously absent when governments decide at what age juveniles should be held accountable for the judgments they make when committing a serious crime.

Juveniles are in a particularly vulnerable state as far as emotional and physiological growth is concerned. According to an author , children show sufficiently dramatic changes between the ages of 10 and 13 . During the adolescent years, juveniles undergo cognitive and socioemotional processes. Between the ages of 12 to 18 or 21 (depending on the sociologists) adolescents begin to solve problems by way of deductive reasoning . However, during the teen years cognitive development and reasoning skills are still developing, just as the adolescent is. For this reason, adolescents do not have the same fully developed reasoning abilities as adults. They are biologically incapable of reaching the same decisions an adult would in any given circumstance because their reasoning skills are still in the developmental stages . In addition, juveniles are especially vulnerable to peer pressure. According to an author , the pressure to conform to the standards of one’s peers usually peeks when the adolescent is in the eighth or ninth grade. Since junior high and high schools are plagued with gang activity, the pressure to join in illegal activity is often more than many adolescents can withstand.

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