American Bar Association Resolution: Ban Death Penalty for Offenders Age 21 or Younger

On February 5, 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." The ABA first opposed applying the death penalty against defendants younger than age 18 in a resolution adopted in 1983. In 1988, in Thompson v. Oklahoma, the U.S. Supreme Court cited that ABA resolution as part of the evidence that "it would offend civilized standards of decency to execute a person who was less than 16 years old at the time of his or her offense." Seventeen years later, in Roper v. Simmons (2005), the Court extended the prohibition against executing juveniles to include all defendants under age 18 when the offense occurred. The ABA's report says "[t]he ABA has been – and should continue to be – a leader in supporting developmentally appropriate and evidence-based solutions for the treatment of young people in our criminal justice system, including with respect to the imposition of the death penalty." It cites recent litigation challenging the death penalty for defendants under 21, including a ruling by a Kentucky trial court that said “the death penalty would be an unconstitutionally disproportionate punishment for crimes committed by individuals under 21 years of age." The report also highlights new research on the development of the adolescent brain and legislative trends affording juvenile status or similar protections to people in their early twenties. The report concludes, "this policy proposes a practical limitation based on age that is supported by science, tracks many other areas of our civil and criminal law, and will succeed in making the administration of the death penalty fairer and more proportional to both the crimes and the offenders."

(Lee Rawles, Ban death penalty for those 21 or younger, ABA House says, ABA Journal, February 5, 2018; Seth Miller and Robert Weiner, Report to the House of Delegates, Resolution 111, American Bar Association Death Penalty Due Process Review Project and Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice, February 2018.) See Juveniles.