The Miami Herald

April 7, 2004


By Rosalynn Carter

Florida Senate Bill 224, which would eliminate the death penalty for individuals who commit offenses when they are under the age of 18, is under consideration in Florida during this legislative session. Florida should join 31 other states that recognize that executing juveniles violates current principles of American justice.

Our country has sought to protect juveniles in almost every facet of their life, enacting laws prohibiting those younger than 18 years old from using alcohol or cigarettes, entering into contracts, voting or serving in armed combat. We spend millions on drug-prevention outreach and sex education in our schools. Yet, when it comes to the most serious of crimes committed by juveniles, we fail to acknowledge their lessened culpability and inflict the severest of punishments.

Adolescents are not adults. They lack full capacity to reason, control impulses and understand consequences. They do not handle social pressures and other stresses like adults do and therefore, are less culpable than adults who commit crimes. Scientific studies demonstrate their lessened responsibility. We previously believed that the brain was fully developed by age 14, but recent studies have revealed that it continues to mature until the early 20s.

We also know that the frontal lobe, which controls the brain’s most complex functions — particularly reasoning — undergoes more change during adolescence than at any other time. It is the last part of the brain to develop.

Such findings have led the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Society of Adolescent Psychiatry to oppose the death penalty for juveniles.

If adolescents who grow up in warm and loving environments cannot fully reason or control their impulses as research has shown, then abused children suffer immense emotional and developmental disadvantages. A 2003 study found that on average, juveniles on Death Row have had multiple experiences of physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, mental disorders or are living in poverty. An earlier study of 14 juveniles sentenced to death found that 12 had been physically or sexually abused, some at the hands of relatives. We as a society have failed to protect or treat these children and are ill prepared to deal with them when some of them commit horrible crimes.

Acknowledging the lesser culpability of juvenile offenders does not minimize the suffering and impact upon their victims’ families. Tragically, there are juveniles who commit terrible crimes. But punishment is to be imposed according to the degree of culpability of the offender.

The United States will soon become the last nation on Earth that executes juvenile offenders. There are only four countries remaining where juveniles reportedly are executed, and the United States and Somalia are the only two countries that have not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which prohibits capital punishment for those under 18. Somalia has recently signed the Convention and announced its intention to ratify.

Florida has a great opportunity to join the growing movement to abolish the juvenile death penalty. A Gallup poll released in May 2002 found only 26 percent of Americans support the death penalty for offenders under age 18. Montana, Indiana, South Dakota and Wyoming are the most recent states to have passed laws banning the severest of punishments for child offenders. Similar bills are pending in a handful of other states.

I hope the Supreme Court will rule later this year when it hears the case of Roper vs. Simmons that juvenile executions are unconstitutional ”cruel and unusual punishment.” Meanwhile, the American public should send a message to the court through their state legislatures that ”evolving standards of decency” do not tolerate executing juvenile offenders.

Rosalynn Carter, former first lady of the United States, is the vice-chair of The Carter Center.


Miami Herald