The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal

October 16, 2004


Soon, Americans over the age of 18 will go to the polls. No one under 18 may vote. They aren’t considered mature enough.

In fact, juveniles aren’t considered mature enough to drink or to smoke, to marry or to sign contracts. They’re not allowed to sit on juries, to make medical decisions - or even go to movies with “mature” content.

But, in many states, including Kentucky, 16- and 17-year-olds are held as accountable as adults if they commit capital crimes. They may be sent to death row, and killed by a lethal injection or an electric jolt.

But opinions on the juvenile death penalty finally are changing. This week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on whether it should be banned.

A ban would affect only 19 states - a statistic now being used by lawyers advocating for a ban. They point out that standards of “decency” have evolved since the Court last considered the issue in 1989.

Today, 19 states that allow the death penalty, including Indiana, carve out an exception for anyone who committed the crime as an adolescent. Even states that do allow executions of juveniles rarely do it - only three have in the past decade.

But there’s another reason for the Court to change its opinion on the juvenile death penalty: Recent studies of neurological development show that the frontal lobe, where reasoning occurs, is the last part of the brain to develop.

As neuropsychologist Ruben Gur of the Brain Behavior Lab at the University of Pennsylvania puts it, “The evidence now is strong that the brain does not cease to mature until the early 20s, in those relevant parts that govern impulsivity, judgment, planning for the future, foresight of consequences and other characteristics that make people morally capable.”

At the same time the brain is changing in juveniles, hormonal changes are occurring. Testosterone, which is closely associated with aggression, increases 10-fold in adolescent boys.

In other words, scientists now can document what every parent of a teenager has known for a long time: that 16- and 17-year-olds often are governed by emotions and impulse instead of reason.

That’s why society restricts their privileges and limits their legal culpability. It’s why so much money and effort are spent trying to protect them from the consequences of drugs and unprotected sex.

How odd it is that the big exception to society’s handling of adolescents is in the way it deals with capital crimes.

Now the Supreme Court has a chance to right that wrong.


The (Louisville, KY) Courier-Journal