Juvenile justice in the U.S. has always been problematic in a criminal justice system inherently complex and problematic itself. No matter the offenses, American culture has long held to a duality as to trying and punishing those legally minors. On one level, the courts, agencies, and organizations often insist that extreme youth cannot be responsibility for crime. On another, and particularly with heinous crimes, the society consistently demands retribution, and no matter the offender’s age. Since 2005, U.S. law as ruled by the Supreme Court (USSC) prohibits the death penalty for minors, with the majority of states defining adulthood as eighteen and older, and ten applying the standard of sixteen and seventeen (DPIC, 2018). The issue, however, may well lead to further change in the courts, and because the ways in which society views extreme criminality evolve over time, and insistences on retribution may reverse the current law. As the following reveals, nonetheless, and as a comparison with another nation’s policy regarding juveniles and capital punishment reinforces, the U.S. prohibition of the death penalty for minors appears to rely largely on the public’s belief that children and adolescents may not be held fully accountable for even the most violent crimes.
The history of juveniles sentenced to death in the U.S. provides insight into how the current social ideologies of the past, rather than any fixed structure of justice, have determined the appropriateness of capital punishment in these cases. Morality, in plain terms, creates the public and legal response, as the first American juvenile was hanged in 1642 for bestiality (Linn, 2016). Over the centuries, 366 minors would be condemned to death, and the common element appears to be crime so heinous, the offenders are perceived as having acted as only the most violent and deranged adults could act. Then, issues of racism certainly came unto play. In 1944, a fourteen-year-old black boy was executed three months after having been convicted of murdering two white girls. Twenty years later, the crime of raping a white woman led to the execution of black James Echols, charged when seventeen and put to death two years later (Linn, 2016). Interestingly, the following years saw a change in this form of juvenile justice based, not on age, but on the public’s growing disapproval of capital punishment in general. At the same time, movements arose fiercely challenging the juvenile death penalty as such, emphasizing the noted racial bias in a great deal of cases. Ultimately, the 2005 USSC case of Roper v Simmons, in which a seventeen-year-old was convicted of murder, generated the ruling that executing juveniles constituted cruel and unusual punishment (Linn, 2016). This remains the law of the land, with states permitted to determine the relevant age defining minor status.
Essentially, the majority of states and the USSC hold that three differences between adults and juveniles render the death penalty inapplicable to the latter. The differences are, in fact, variations of a single point; namely, the person under eighteen is not mature enough to be fully responsible for their actions, the lack of maturity makes them vulnerable to negative and/or criminal influences, and the juvenile’s character is not yet formed (Latzer, 2010, p. 205). What is interesting is how this judicial thinking reflects the most traditionally American ideology insisting that youth is inherently innocent, at least to an extent. As noted, American society is consistently ambiguous regarding juvenile offenders; they are alternately victims of abusive or deprived conditions and environments, or they are violent threats to be dealt with as such. More importantly, however, the Simmons ruling alone represents the American insistence on perceiving young offenders as not responsible for their actions.
That insistence then exposes how nationalist or cultural ideologies determine juvenile justice in capital cases, as other nations hold to norms by no means freeing the juvenile of accountability due to age. Iran presents the greatest contrast to the U.S. in this regard. In 2014, for example, the United Nations reported that 160 juveniles were on death row in the nation, and Amnesty International asserts that at least seventy-three juveniles were executed in Iran between 2005 and 2015. Then, it is widely believed that the actual numbers are much higher, given Iran’s secrecy in these internal matters (DPIC, 2018). What further demands attention is that many of these juveniles are found guilty of only drug charges, or of participating in protests. This reinforces how a nation’s ideological or political priorities and norms, rather than a more focused sense of justice, are the determinants of the death penalty’s application to juveniles. In Iran, a totalitarian government so enforces both morality and the protection of the stat, youth is immaterial when offenses are considered. Conversely, the U.S., typically divided in its perceptions of juveniles as offenders at all, maintains to date the belief that extreme youth cannot be accountable for even extreme crime.
In a very real sense, the striking contrast between American and Iranian juvenile justice regarding the death penalty underscores a shared reality; namely, that the justice is largely determined by the society’s norms and ideas. In Iran, oppression permits no mercy based on youth, as totalitarian nations are most concerned with ensuring their stability and enforcing specific morality. In the U.S., and after centuries indicating racial bias and a disregard for the possible limitations of youth, it remains upheld that juveniles are innately not accountable for crimes to the extent of being put to death. As has been seen, then, the U.S. ban of the death penalty for minors is likely based on the public’s persistent and traditional belief that children and adolescents are not fully responsible for even the most violent crimes.
- Death Penalty Information Center (DPIC). (2018). Execution of Juveniles in the U.S. and Other Countries. Retrieved from https://deathpenaltyinfo.org/execution-juveniles-us-and-other-countries
- Latzer, B., & McCord, D. (2010). Death Penalty Cases: Leading U.S. Supreme Court Cases on Capital Punishment. New York, NY: Elsevier.
- Linn, A. (13 Feb. 2016). History of Death Penalty for Juvenile Offenders. Retrieved from https://jjie.org/2016/02/13/history-of-death-penalty-for-juvenile-offenders/