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Execution Of Juveniles

Execution Of Juveniles Adult Punishment and Juvenile Justice Day after day in this country there is a debate going on about the death penalty and whether we as people have the right to decide the fate of another persons life. When we examine this issue we usually consider those we are arguing about to be older men and women who are more than likely hardened criminals with rap sheets longer than the height we stand (Farley & Willwerth, 1998). They have made a career of crime, committing it rather than studying it, and somewhere along the line a jury of their peers decided enough was enough. They were handed down the most severe and most final punishment of them all, death. Behind all of the controversy that this issue raises lies a different group of people that are not so often brought into the lime light, juveniles.

This proposes a problem entangled with another; if we do decide to carry out death sentences, what is the minimum age limit? Can we electrocute, lethally inject, or gas any one who commits a crime that is considered capital? In this paper the issue of capital punishment for juveniles will be discussed, basically laying out a comprehensive look at the matter. First we will briefly look at the history of both juvenile justice and the history of the death penalty in regards to juveniles. Secondly we will take a short look at the two major court cases that dealt with this issue in the United States. Next this paper will present the factual statistics of the death penalty for juveniles and also take a look at our country’s stance on the issue in the international arena. We will then spend a short time looking at some views on the juvenile death penalty, reasons for the death penalty itself, and the arguments for and against the death penalty for juveniles.

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Lastly we will conclude with a few thoughts about the issue and the implications that we might have to consider. The history of the death penalty being imposed on juveniles spans all the way back to almost the beginning of our country. In 1642, Thomas Graunger of Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts, was the first juvenile, to be sentenced to death and executed in our country for a crime that he committed (Executions, 2000). Since the start of capital punishment (or the recording thereof) in 1608, there has been around 19,200 executions in the United States of all ages. Of that total number, experts believe approximately 356 of them were juvenile executions, meaning that the crime that the individual was sentenced for took place before the offender was eighteen years of age (Gonnerman, 2000). This accounts for about 1.8% of all executions from the start of capital punishment to present (Executions, 2000).

Since 1973 there has been 196 death sentences handed out to juveniles and seventeen of those have ended in actual execution (Streib, 2000). Table 1 lists those seventeen individuals that have been executed since 1973, their date and place of execution, their race, and their age both when they committed their crime and when they were executed. The juvenile justice system was born in 1899 at which time it was recognized as separate from the regular justice system that dealt with adult offenders (Ricotta, 1988). At the start, the stated objectives of the juvenile justice system was “ provide measures of guidance and rehabilitation for the child and protection for society, not to fix criminal responsibility, guilt, and punishment” (Ricotta, 1988). By the stated objectives it would seem as though rehabilitation would be one of the most important goals of the juvenile system.

So how are we able to decide now that a teenager is past the point of rehabilitation and deserves the final punishment? Or does the obligation to “protect society” become more overwhelming and leave us with no other option but to put someone to death? These are just a few questions that one might ask about our present goals in comparison to the initial goals that were established from the start. Next we will discuss the two pivotal court cases that set the precedent for our current juvenile death penalty statutes. William Wayne Thompson, only fifteen years of age, and three older persons were all found guilty of first degree murder back in December of 1983. He was convicted of murdering his brother-in-law in a most “heinous, atrocious, and cruel” (Ricotta, 1988) way. After the district court decided that their was “no reasonable prospects for rehabilitation” (Ricotta, 1988) it was decided that he would be tried as an adult. The Supreme Court of the United States had to decide whether he could then be subject to adult punishment which brought up the question of the eighth amendment’s “cruel and unusual punishment” clause.

The Court justified the use of adult punishment by coining a phrase that was used often in the written opinions by the Justices. They stated that the discretion would be left up to judges to determine the “evolving standards of decency that mark the progress of a maturing society” (Ricotta, 1988) since they could not resolve what the writers of the Constitution explicitly meant by cruel and unusual. In this case, Thompson vs. Oklahoma (1988), the Justices concluded that fifteen year olds were not prepared to assume the responsibilities of an adult (Ricotta, 1988). To this day no state allows the death penalty to be appointed to any person under the age of sixteen.

The next year in Stanford vs. Kentucky (1989), the courts emphasized the notion that the eighth amendment does not prohibit juvenile execution for those age sixteen or seventeen (Beck, 1999). These cases are the key events in the development in this issue. There are also International laws that speak of this topic. Steven Hawkins, director of the National Coalition to abolish the Death Penalty, quotes in the article Dead Teen Walking that “[w]e should be embarrassed to find ourselves in [the] company” (Farley & Willwerth, 1998) of countries such as Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Nigeria, and Yemen. These were the only countries outside the U.S. that still used the death penalty for juveniles up until two years ago. Currently, the U.S. is the only country in the world that practices this punishment for juveniles (Streib, 2000).

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Gonnerman, 2000) and the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of the Child (Amnesty, 1997) both outlaw the death penalty for persons under the age of eighteen. The U.S. ratified the former in 1992 and has yet to ratify the latter. The UN Convention goes one step farther than this discussion and also outlaws life imprisonment without parole or juveniles (Amnesty, 1997). The U.S. definitely does not look good when it comes to this subject when compared to other countries, countries that are known for human rights violations, and countries that decided to ratify the International law.

So who are the “kids” that are committing these crimes that force us to be in this debate in the first place? Almost all the juveniles given the sentence of death are male, 98% of the total (Streib 2000). Two-thirds of the juveniles are minority offenders (Streib 2000), 20% being Latino and the other 43% are African American (Gonnerman, 2000). One statistic of particular interest is that 80% of the victims of these juveniles are adults (Streib 2000), not kids their own age. As of June 2000, their were seventy-four juveniles under death sentence, the majority of which are in Texas. Texas houses 26 of these young felons, one third of the national total (Whitman, 2000), and has executed nine of the seventeen that have been executed since 1973. Besides the seventy-four sentenced to die currently and the 17 that have been executed since 1973, there have been another 105 adolescents that have their sentences reversed (Streib 2000).

On an even more individual note, a study was conducted in 1988 of fourteen juvenile offenders. Conclusions showed that all the individuals had serious psychiatric problems, twelve had been abused as children, and only two of the young people had IQ’s above ninety (Farley & Willwerth, 1998). These similarities may help to explain the reasons that some of the juveniles are awaiting death, however this paper does not explore that issue. The U.S. undoubtedly leads the world in juvenile executions. Ten out of the nineteen juveniles to be executed since 1990 have been in the U.S.

(Gonnerman, 2000). We average about ten death sentences per year according to Victor Streib, the topics leading researcher (2000) …


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