Concorde (NH) Monitor

April 22, 2004


A civilized society does not kill children, not even children who’ve killed.

According to Amnesty International, the United States has executed more juveniles over the past decade than all other nations combined. Of the 22 American children executed for their crimes since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976, 13 were put to death in Texas. Virginia (three), Oklahoma (two) and Louisiana, Georgia, South Carolina, Missouri (one each) accounted for the rest.

New Hampshire, to its credit, is not on that list. Today, by passing Senate Bill 513, the House will have the opportunity to affirm that it won’t be. It should do so.

Although it may legally impose the death penalty for several serious crimes, New Hampshire has not executed anyone since 1939. But the state is one of only 19 that allow anyone over 17 to be charged with a capital crime and put to death.

A bill passed by a 12-11 vote of the Senate earlier this year would raise the age of culpability for a capital crime to 18. The change would not mean that young murderers must be tried in juvenile court. The law allows offenders as young as 13 to be certified as adults. But it does mean that the harshest penalty a juvenile could face would be a sentence of life in prison with no hope of parole. That’s the same penalty that now applies in first-degree murder cases.

The bill also clears up an ambiguity in existing law by adding the words “at the time the offense was committed.” The change eliminates the possibility that an adult could be executed for a crime committed while a child but not prosecuted until years later.

Whatever one’s views on the death penalty - we oppose it in all cases -there are sound reasons for forbidding the execution of juveniles. A large body of law exists to protect people under 18 on grounds that juveniles lack the emotional or mental maturity to make many crucial decisions. Youth would, of course, disagree, and the exceptions to that general rule are many. Yet society does not grant those under 18:

  • The right to vote or to serve on a jury.
  • The right to purchase tobacco or alcohol or for that matter, a Playboy magazine.
  • The ability to work a hazardous job, fight in combat or enter a binding contract.
  • The ability to marry without parental consent (except in Mississippi, where the age is 17 for boys and 15 for girls).

That vast body of law recognizes that juveniles are, by rights, held to a lower standard of responsibility than adults. Yet the rule is breached when children are forced to face the ultimate sanction for their actions.

In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled - wrongly - that states do have the authority to execute 16 and 17-year-old offenders. Fortunately, society continues to evolve. Contemporary community standards - the mirror in which society sees both itself and what it seeks to become - have changed. There are, as the Eighth Amendment recognizes, “evolving standards of decency,” and the public, by more than a two-thirds margin, now strongly opposes the execution of children no matter how heinous their crimes.

Part of that change in attitude has come with a better understanding of the link between adolescent brain development and maturity. No matter how bright they might be, the brains of young people, and their ability to reason and control impulses, are not fully formed.

Society recognizes that by holding juveniles up to different standards in most aspects of life. It should do the same when it comes to capital punishment.


Concorde (NH) Monitor