Tallahassee Democrat

April 12, 2004


By Sheila S. Hopkins

Children are different from adults. That is why society does not allow them to buy tobacco or alcohol, own a handgun, serve in combat or vote.

With few exceptions, a general rule of law is that parents have an obligation to financially support their children until age 18 when they would be considered adults.

The Florida Catholic Conference joins other voices supporting the passage by the Florida Legislature of SB 224 and HB 63, with no amendments, which would make the death penalty an authorized punishment only for those who are 18 years of age or older at the time they committed a capital crime.

Our hearts go out to the victims of a horrible crime, and serious crime deserves significant punishment. Few of us know the pain felt by those who have lost a loved one. Thoughts of revenge are often the immediate reaction. Just as God put a mark on Cain to protect him from those who would seek revenge for the death of his brother Abel, we need to put punishment in the proper perspective for youth who have not reached maturity.

Advances in science have revealed that the brain continues to develop up until the early 20s. Immaturity and impulsiveness of emotions, in addition to the hormone and emotional changes to the body, are indications that adolescents have not yet achieved adulthood; therefore, they should be judged as having less culpability for their actions. Life in prison without possibility of parole is an alternative available in the criminal justice system. All people are created in the image and likeness of God, but everyone is not given the same gifts nor do they end up in a home where they are loved and nurtured. A 2003 study of juvenile offenders published in the Juvenile Correctional Mental Health Report found that more than 30 % of death row juvenile offenders suffered from at least 4 significant life-altering traumas. Among them were abuse or neglect, psychiatric disorders, substance addiction, family dysfunction or poverty. Moreover, such mitigating evidence was presented in less than half of the offenders’ trials. Most children under 18 have not had to cope with even one of these traumatic experiences.

Evolving standards of decency played a key role in the abolition of the execution of mentally retarded in a Virginia case, taking into consideration laws in effect in 30 states banning this practice.

Momentum is building nationally for a ban on executing juveniles as 13 other states, in addition to Florida, introduced legislation to ban the juvenile death penalty in 2003. Recently Montana, Indiana, South Dakota and Wyoming added their names to the list of 31 states that do not allow execution for 16- and 17-year-old offenders.

Poll results released in December 2003 by ABC News regarding Americans’ opinion on the fate of “sniper” Lee Malvo were in favor of life imprisonment, rather than death - the same as the verdict rendered by the Virginia jury that heard all the testimony about his participation in these heinous crimes.

Florida has not executed a juvenile offender since 1954, and there are only three juvenile offenders on Death Row. We urge senators and representatives to take up this legislation, which has passed in at least one of the Florida chambers in 2000, 2001 and 2003. In the near future, a Missouri case will be before the U.S. Supreme Court, which could declare execution of juveniles “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Let’s stand up now “for the least among us” and choose to end capital punishment for 16- and 17-year-old offenders.

Sheila S. Hopkins is associate for social concerns for the Forida Catholic Conference in Tallahassee


Tallahassee Democrat