Tampa (FL) Tribune

April 15, 2004



Floridians should be proud that our Legislature has taken a lead role in the nationwide juvenile death penalty debate.

Until recently, our political leaders were on track in calling for the minimum age for execution to be 18; now this wise decision risks being derailed by a few who proposed an amendment lowering the age to 17. While a one-year difference may seem arbitrary and inconsequential, every year counts for children in this age group.

Adolescence is a period of enormous developmental change - physically, cognitively and emotionally. Especially under duress, teenagers are more likely than adults to act impulsively, to take risks, to respond to peer influence, to overlook or disregard adverse consequences and to exercise poor judgment. This is why persons under the age of 18 are considered minors and are denied the right to vote, to consume alcohol, to enter into contracts, to serve on juries and to engage in military combat.

The execution of juvenile offenders raises a number of legal and ethical issues, but for many it has become a question of science and medicine. Why? Because as the U.S. Supreme Court said in prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded offenders, the death penalty is the most severe punishment to be reserved for adults. As a health professional, I know that 16- and 17-year-olds do not yet possess the maturity and mental capacities of adulthood and should not, therefore, be sentenced to die.

Indeed, neuroscientists have long believed that the part of the human brain that controls impulse, aggression and anticipation of consequences does not mature fully until well beyond age 18, possibly as late as age 23. Now, with the benefit of cutting-edge technology that allows us to “watch” the adolescent brain in action, researchers at the National Institutes of Health and elsewhere are confirming this knowledge with new scientific data. This emerging evidence has led prominent neuroscientists to suggest that it is unfair and unreasonable to impose expectations of adult-level capacities on the thinking and behavior of minors.

Furthermore, medical histories of juvenile death row inmates show that many of these young people have been victimized by childhood sexual and physical abuse or neglect. Many also have congenital conditions or brain injuries that led to later cognitive impairment. Any early brain insult can disrupt adolescents’ emotional and cognitive development, exacerbating the existing vulnerabilities of youth.

Unfortunately, most of these children never received the treatment that could have prevented their emotional and cognitive impairments as adolescents.

Teenagers who commit serious crimes should not be absolved of responsibility, but accountability should be commensurate with adolescent growth and capacities. The ultimate, irrevocable adult penalty should not be imposed on those who are not yet adults.

Health professionals in Florida and throughout the country - especially those who treat and study children - are urging the Legislature to amend the age back to 18 and to pass the bill. There is good reason why other states are raising the age of execution to 18; Florida should not be left behind. It’s the wise thing to do.

Jeffrey P. Brosco, M.D., Ph.D., is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and an associate professor of clinical pediatrics at the University of Miami School of Medicine, as well as director of clinical services at the Mailman Center for Child Development.


Tampa (FL) Tribune