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U.S. Should Ban Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders

William G. Paul, President
American Bar Association


The United States stands at the threshold of a new millennium poised to execute a record number of young men who were juveniles when they committed their crimes. Three youths sentenced to death for crimes they committed when they were juveniles are scheduled for execution in January - two in Virginia and one in Texas. Seventy others reside on death rows in the United States

These three executions for crimes committed by persons so young will set a record in the United States since the reinstatement of capital punishment in 1976, placing the United States with Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen as the only countries who have executed juvenile offenders in the past decade. Most other nations have banned the death penalty altogether for those whose crimes were committed when they were juveniles. International conventions that set the tone for humanity and civility in the world, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, condemn execution of defendants for crimes committed before age 18.

The United States has been found by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to violate international law, because we, alone among the nations of the western world, execute individuals for crimes they committed as juveniles. Even within the U.S., the federal government and 15 of the 38 states that impose capital punishment prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed under the age of 18. While the American Bar Association believes that young people who commit violent crimes should be appropriately punished, it has long opposed imposition of the death penalty on any person for an offense committed while they were under the age of 18. Recognizing the paired trends of a growing reliance on capital punishment generally and a willingness to prosecute juveniles as adults, the ABA in 1983 cited a looming specter of juvenile executions, but could find no rational justification for killing juvenile offenders.

Why is it necessary to use the death penalty for those who were juveniles when they committed the crime? We know that adolescents lack a full appreciation of the consequences of their actions, and that juveniles sometimes make rash and terrible decisions because they are young and haven’t developed the judgment we expect of adults. For this reason, juveniles cannot vote or serve as jurors. Experts confirm that capital punishment has little or no deterrent value for adolescents. With no deterrent benefit, the only other possible rationale to execute those who killed when they were juveniles is to satisfy our need for vengeance. Many of the young men on death row have crippling mental or behavioral disorders, or have suffered horribly from physical, psychological and sexual abuse. It reflects more upon us as a society than it does on the offender that we would seek legal vengeance through execution for the crimes of a child. The change of a year is a time of looking both back in time and forward. The change of a century, and indeed of a millennium, is even more emphatically a time of measuring - measuring progress along with time.

Governors James Gilmore of Virginia and George W. Bush of Texas have the power to commute these death sentences to life imprisonment. Let us raise our voices and urge them to grant clemency before the executions scheduled for Jan. 10 for Douglas Christopher Thomas of Virginia, Jan. 13 for Steve Roach of Virginia, and Jan. 25 for Glen McGinnis of Texas. Urge them to do that, before it is too late. If the United States is to grow, to progress, let it not be at the cost of our humanity. Let us reassert our nation’s leadership in human rights and abolish the juvenile death penalty. But pending that, let each of us act to save the lives of the three juveniles now slated to die as we march into the millennium.