EXECUTING JUVENILES DEMEANS JUSTICE
By Alfred P. Carlton Jr.,
American Bar Association President
Thirteen years ago Kevin Stanford’s case in front of the US Supreme Court
reinvigorated the national debate regarding the execution of
offenders under age 18. Although the Court was one vote short
of banning the practice at that time, it has become even more
clear that executing juvenile offenders offends our sense of
decency, is not befitting a civilized nation and does not serve
justice in any way. It now appears that Stanford’s fate
lies in the hands of the state of Kentucky.
While I do not excuse the crime or question the suffering it
caused the victims, their family or their friends, I do know
that we must stop executing people for crimes committed as children.
I urge Governor Patton to commute Mr. Stanford’s death
sentence to a prison sentence.
As a parent and as a lawyer, I know that there are fundamental
differences between the teenagers and adults that I observe
daily, differences that have been documented scientifically
by such organizations as the American Psychiatric Association,
the National Mental Health Association, the American Society
for Adolescent Psychiatry and the American Academy for Child
and Adolescent Psychiatry. These important distinctions in brain
development, impulse control, maturity and cognitive ability
explain why we do not permit juveniles to vote, serve in military
combat, enter into contracts, drink alcohol, or make their own
medical decisions. Our federal government, 16 of the 38 states
that permit executions in this country, and virtually all other
nations of the world understand these differences and prohibit
execution of child offenders.
So I am deeply troubled that some states in our nation, which
views itself as a beacon for the civilized world and the embodiment
of the rule of law, persist in a practice that defies international
law and is so broadly condemned. Although there have been reports
of juvenile offenders being executed in other countries in recent
years, all except the United States and Iran either have changed
their laws or denied such executions took place.
The American Bar Association, which takes no position on the
death penalty itself, does oppose the execution of juvenile
offenders. Our position is not grounded on sympathy, but rather
on common decency and fundamental justice, and the notion that
we should punish according to culpability. We should reserve
the most severe punishment for the worst offenders. Executing
child offenders is inconsistent with these concepts.
That does not suggest that teenagers do not understand the difference
between right and wrong, or that they should not face punishment
for violating society’s laws. It does mean that they should
not pay for their mistakes with their lives.
The moral force and legal justification for the death penalty,
deterrence and retribution, simply do not apply in the case
of juvenile offenders. Other teenagers, acting impulsively,
typically lacking judgment and self-control, will not be deterred
when we execute their contemporaries. We dare not hold children
accountable for their actions to the same degree as we do adults.
To do so serves no principled purpose, and only demeans our
system of justice.