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OVERVIEW: Juveniles

last updated June 21, 2004

Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights strongly believes that the execution of juvenile offenders is contrary to widely accepted human rights norms and the minimum standards of human rights set forth by the United Nations. International human rights treaties, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Rights of the Child and the Geneva Conventions, prohibit capital punishment for offenses committed by persons under eighteen years of age at the time of the crime.

The United States is one of only four countries that continue to officially sanction the execution of juvenile offenders. In 2004, Iran executed a juvenile offender; however, legislation is pending before the country’s highest governing body to abolish these executions. Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, while not abolishing execution of juveniles outright, have not executed juvenile offenders since 1992 and 1997, respectively. The Democratic Republic of Congo has established a moratorium on the execution of juvenile offenders. While China officially abolished the juvenile death penalty in 1997, and Pakistan followed suit in 2000, both countries have reportedly had problems enforcing compliance. In the past ten years, the U.S. has executed more juvenile offenders than all other nations combined.

According to Amnesty International, twenty-two U.S. states permit the execution of juveniles, and fifteen states have juvenile offenders on death row. Three executions of juveniles took place in Texas in 2002. The last execution of a juvenile in the U.S. occurred in 2003 when Scott Hain was put to death in Oklahoma. As of April 2004, there were seventy-nine juvenile offenders awaiting execution; more than one-third of them are in Texas.

Recent legal developments in the United States, however, demonstrate a nationwide trend towards the abolition of the juvenile death penalty. Currently, thirty-one states and the federal criminal justice system prohibit the execution of juveniles.(1) Since the Supreme Court affirmed the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty in 1989 (2), eight states have acted to abolish the execution of juveniles through legislative acts or judicial decisions: Washington (1993), Kansas (1994), New York (1995), Montana (1999), Indiana (2002), Missouri (2003), South Dakota (2004), Wyoming (2004). In the last year, twelve states considered legislation to end the execution of juvenile offenders: Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Texas. Though the New Hampshire state legislature passed its bill, Governor Craig Benson vetoed the bill on May 10, 2004.

The U.S. Supreme Court is also reconsidering the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty. Although the Court declined to address the issue in 2002, four justices at the time issued a strongly worded dissent in In Re Stanford calling for an end to “this shameful practice” and declaring the execution of juvenile offenders “a relic of the past…inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.”(3) In 2003, the Missouri State Supreme Court ruled in Simmons v. Roper that executing offenders who were under eighteen years of age at the time of the crime was cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.(4) The U.S. Supreme Court will consider the Missouri case and decide this question again in the fall of 2004.(5)

These developments reflect both public opinion and increasingly sophisticated scientific understanding of the adolescent brain. A Gallup poll conducted in May 2002 found that sixty-nine percent of Americans oppose the death penalty for offenders under the age of eighteen years.

Research in developmental psychology reinforces the concerns inherent in executing juveniles. A Harvard Medical study researching the development of adolescent brains found that the frontal lobes are the last to develop. Thus, “the very brain system necessary for inhibition and goal-directed behavior comes ‘on board’ last and is not fully operational until early adulthood (about 18-22 years).” The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published similar findings. They determined that the brain is not fully matured until a person is approximately 20 years old. The maturation rate can be greatly retarded by abuse and neglect, something that is all too common in the early lives of most juvenile offenders. In 1987, New York University Medical Center studied juveniles on death row in four states and found that every one suffered from some form, or combination of, psychotic disorders, intellectual impairment, neurological impairment, or severe physical and/or sexual abuse. These studies show that juveniles are developmentally different from adults and while this does not excuse their crimes, it raises questions about their culpability.

There are a growing number of legal, religious, governmental, mental health, child advocacy and scientific organizations that have voiced opposition to the execution of juvenile offenders including the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, the American Bar Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the European Union, Child Welfare League of America, the Children’s Defense Fund, the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, the National Education Association, the Constitution Project, the National Mental Health Association, the American Society for Adolescent Psychiatry, the National Bar Association, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops, the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the Unitarian Universalist Association and Murder Victims Families for Reconciliation.

Pope John Paul II actively opposes the juvenile death penalty along with former Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama. The former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson has expressed her deep regret over the execution of juveniles in the U.S. In response to the execution of Texas inmate Gary Graham in 2000, Robinson stated, “I believe the execution of Mr. Graham ran counter to widely accepted international principles and to the international community’s expressed desire for the abolition of the death penalty.”

The execution of juvenile offenders has all but ended around the world. At the same time, legal developments in the United States reflect growing public sentiment opposing the juvenile death penalty. By continuing to execute juvenile offenders, the United States is neither living up to the expectations of the international community as a leader in human rights protection nor respecting the standards of decency embraced by its own citizens. Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights calls upon the nineteen states that still allow execution of juvenile offenders to abolish this practice through act of law.

(1) These numbers include the twelve states that have abolished the death penalty entirely.
(2) Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989). Following this decision, Governor Paul Patton of Kentucky commuted the death sentence of the petitioner Kevin Stanford.
(3) In re Stanford, 537 U.S. 968, 972 (2002).
(4) Simmons v. Roper, 112 S.W.3d 397 (Mo. 2003).
(5) 124 S.Ct. 1171 (2004).