The Pantagraph (IL)

August 9, 2004


Changing U.S. attitudes toward the death penalty are reflected in a case under consideration by the U.S. Supreme Court. The justices have the opportunity to decide whether it is unconstitutional to execute people who were under age 18 when they committed their crimes.

Actually, the court ruled on that issue 15 years ago in Sanford v. Kentucky, when it allowed the practice for 16- and 17-year-olds. A year earlier, it had ruled against execution of those who were under 16 when they committed their crimes.

But in determining what constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment,” which is prohibited under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the court has the authority to look at current attitudes in society rather than be ruled by the Founding Fathers’ intent more than 2 centuries ago.

And societal attitudes are changing.

The Supreme Court should outlaw execution of murderers who were under 18 when they committed the crime.

Illinois already requires that a person be at least 18 at the time of the crime to be eligible for the death penalty, as do 18 other states and the federal government. 12 states have no death penalty.

However, 14 states set the age at 16 and 5 allow executions for crimes committed when a person was 17.

Even though 19 states allow the death penalty for crimes committed as minors, only seven states have carried out such executions since the death penalty was reinstated in the United States in 1976.

In the past four years, only four countries other than the United States have executed people for committing crimes as juveniles: China, Congo, Iran and Pakistan. Those nations are hardly role models for human rights.

Although one might argue there is little difference between a person who commits a heinous murder a few days before his 18th birthday and one who does so a few days after that birthday, there needs to be an arbitrary cutoff somewhere.

The Supreme Court put that cutoff at age 16 in 1988. But medical professionals, who are among those arguing for a change in U.S. practices, say it should be higher.

Organizations such as the American Medical Association argue that adolescents do not have sufficient emotional maturity and reasoning abilities to subject them to the death penalty. They are better qualified than judges or other politicians to make such distinctions.

The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to ban execution of juvenile offenders as cruel and unusual punishment.


The Pantagraph (IL)