Kentucky Courier- Journal

March 3, 2004


By Mark S. Wright, past president, Kentucky Psychiatric Association

The U.S. Supreme Court in 2002 determined that it was unconstitutional to execute the mentally retarded because their “disabilities in areas of reasoning, judgment and control of their impulses” mean “they do not act with the level of moral culpability that characterizes the most serious adult criminal conduct.” Even those who support the death penalty agree that mentally retarded defendants should not be executed because they are not fully aware of the consequences of their actions.

Juveniles are not adults. Recent brain research shows that juveniles should also be excluded from the death penalty for similar reasons.

Juveniles are far less developed than we ever knew, according to landmark research. The studies have prompted many in the medical, psychological and scientific communities to support proposals that would bar those under the age of 18 from capital punishment.

Those in favor of the death penalty for juveniles argue that 16 and 17 year olds who commit adult crimes should be subject to adult penalties, including death. No one is suggesting that juveniles who commit heinous crimes should not be responsible for their actions, but recent discoveries on juvenile development, as reported by the Harvard Medical School, challenge the commonly held view that the brain finishes development at puberty.

Just as adolescents exhibit growth spurts, various features of their brains undergo dramatic changes as well. Frontal cortex and the prefrontal cortex, among other parts of the brain, do not develop fully until the early to mid 20s. These are the “executive” areas of the brain, which, among other things, calm emotions, control impulses, make decisions, process abstract ideas and organize and plan multiple tasks.

Any parent of a 16 or 17 year old knows the significant limits of the judgment of their children.

Scientific proof that even normal adolescents are in far less control of their thoughts, impulses and action, shows us that they should not be held to the same standard of punishment as fully developed adults.

The law recognizes that kids are different. The law prohibits persons under the age of 18 from voting, serving in military combat and on juries, making medical decisions, entering into contracts, marrying, leaving home, buying cigarettes and drinking alcohol precisely because adolescents are less mature than adults.

Doctors oppose the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Experts, including doctors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, and neuroscientists assert that adolescents are not adults - physically, mentally or emotionally. In recognition of his scientific fact, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the 40,000-member American Psychiatric Association have all adopted policies specifically opposing capital punishment for those under 18.

The medical community is not alone. Nationally, support is low for the death penalty for juveniles. Only 26% favor the death penalty for juveniles. A 2002 statewide poll showed that Kentuckians support a bill to eliminate the death penalty for 16 and 17 year olds by a 2-to-1 margin.

The sentencing recommendation by the jury in the Lee Malvo case is a clear signal that the public is reluctant to condemn juvenile offenders to death, even for the most horrendous of crimes. A recent ABC News poll found that 62% of Americans support life in prison over a death sentence for a juvenile offender. People understand that minors are less culpable than adults.

Juries are less willing to put young offenders to death. In the 1990s, juries sentenced more than 10 juveniles to death each year. In 2003, only 2 minors were sentenced to death. The annual death-sentencing rate for juveniles has been in decline for 4 years and is now at its lowest point in 14 years.

This statistical decline is one of several indicators that the time has come to abolish the practice of sentencing to death and executing juvenile offenders. A national consensus has emerged, with nearly every major medical and legal association, religious denomination, and children’s group opposing the practice.

28 states and the federal government prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders. Of the 21 states that permit juvenile offender executions, only 15 have juveniles on death row, and only 7 have used the punishment. A growing number of states are considering legislation to ban the practice. 7 out of 10 Americans oppose the death penalty for juvenile offenders. Nearly every major religious denomination, children’s group, and legal and medical association oppose the practice.

World Consensus. The United States is the only nation in the world that continues to carry out the execution of juvenile offenders. Iran and Pakistan have both indicated that they will no longer carry out such executions.

Kentucky should no longer execute juveniles. In this session, the Kentucky General Assembly is expected to take up the issue of juvenile executions. No matter how Kentucky voters feel about the death penalty, the state has no business executing juvenile offenders.


The Kentucky Courier-Journal