Yankton Daily Press

February 10, 2004


South Dakota lawmakers have an opportunity this session to send an important message about the state’s system of criminal punishment and its notion of reform.

The question is, which message will they choose to send?

The answer can be found in SB182, a bill which would prohibit the execution of anyone under age 18 convicted in South Dakota of murder, aggravated kidnapping or terrorism. With the death penalty part of state law, it is possible that at some point in the future a minor may be convicted of a capital crime — a very adult offense, to be sure — and be sentenced to die. South Dakota is currently one of 16 states in the country that allows this practice.

The bill was approved by the Senate Monday and now heads to the House for consideration.

South Dakota should put this law on its books.

By so doing, the state would send a message of hope, for lack of a better term. It would leave open the possibility that there is a chance of rehabilitation for a youthful offender who has made a horrible mistake.

By rejecting this measure, lawmakers are, in effect, undercutting one of the purposes of our penal system. They would be proclaiming that a crime committed at such a young age forfeits any chance a convicted minor may have of righting himself or herself, or of using any wisdom that may come with maturity to find a better path in life.

Let’s not be naive about this. A capital crime such as murder is an unconscionable act, no matter the age of the perpetrator. And of course, no amount of mercy or reform for the prisoner will ever bring back a victim from the dead. Murder is the ultimate transgression in our society, and currently the law in 38 states says it demands the ultimate price. (The merits of that law comprise another argument for another time.)

However, the state should also recognize that minors are at a confusing, impressionable, chaotic age of transition. Emotions can run rampant, priorities can be shortsighted, and judgment can sometimes produce mirages of logic and illogic. For any kid, this is an awkward time of maturity — think back to your own teen years. A kid’s violent, antisocial, self-destructive behavior may be a result of parents who did not understand the needs of the child and did not fully appreciate the awesome responsibility of molding a law-abiding citizen. It may simply be the result of bad, misguided judgment. In either case, it is a serious cry for help.

If a teen commits a murder, that youth should be given the opportunity to set his or her life straight. It may mean years in prison and the loss of precious freedom, but it would also mean that there is at least a chance for a young life to reform.

That’s one of the things our prison system is supposed to represent: giving felons the chance to rehabilitate themselves while paying for their crimes. Certainly, some of these people will never change their ways — but some actually do. Juveniles, who undeniably still have a lot of growing up to do, should be given that chance to change with the passage of time and to realize what the walls and bars around them truly mean.

This bill does not ask for forgiveness for juveniles convicted of a capital crime; instead, it asks for a genuine opportunity for rehabilitation. With the proper counseling and guidance, there is the chance that a young, still-forming life can be put on a better path. By executing teens, we are dismissing this possibility. We are dismissing any hope.

That is something this state should not do.


Yankton Daily Press