English Comp. I A
25 October 1996
In 1643 a sixteen year old boy was put to death for sodomizing a cow. Three
hundred and fifty years later, sixteen states have legitimized the execution of juveniles.
Four of those twelve states have lowered the legal age of execution to twelve. For
whatever reasons the death penalty has been supported by the public since this country's
existence. In this day and age of increasing violence, both juvenile and adult, it is time to
re-examine the use of the death penalty as the ultimate solution to crime. The social
repercussions of enforcing the state executions of juveniles far outweigh any of the benefits
that may be gained.
The cry for the death penalty is most loudly heard when referring to it as use of a
deterrent. According to Allen Kale 'it is estimated that about 76% of the American public
support the use of the death penalty as a deterrent, however that support drops to less than
9% when referring specifically to juveniles.'
(Kale 1) The mindset of the American public
seems to be drastically different when dealing juveniles. And yet, with only 9% of the
public supporting the policy, it remains in effect.
Another strong outcry for the death penalty comes from those wanting restitution
for the death of a loved one. It is the thought that a life is the ultimate price to pay which
fuels this argument. The delineation between adults and juveniles is much less clear on this
point. Age doesn't seem to make much of a difference when dealing with restitution. Putting
an individual to death seems to put the minds of certain individuals at ease. This argument
is what makes that 9% seem to be the vast majority.
The distinction between juveniles and adults is a very important one. It is often a
deciding factor when one is choosing to support the death penalty or not. Although the
difference often consists of just a few short years, it is those years which make all the
difference. Often its deterrent effect and costs are greatly affected by age and maturity. In
fact, most theories and reasons for supporting the death penalty are flawed when applying
them to juveniles.
The debate over whether or not the death penalty is an effective deterrent is likely
to continue as long as it is in place. However, its deterrent effect towards juveniles is more
obvious. There are several reasons why the death penalty does not deter children. The
death penalty has a very unique effect on juveniles. It has now become an ineffective means
of deterring crime while in some cases actually acting as an incentive for crime.
The first reason the death penalty is an ineffective tool for law enforcement has to
do with the hypocrisy surrounding the policy. Because the state is actively taking part in
killing, the death penalty is seen as hypocritical by juveniles. It is of course, hard to
believe that juveniles not murder when they regularly see it being done by the government
with the apparent approval of society. This was supported when Victor Strieb stated that
'Now they see government officials struggling with a problem of their own,
a person whose behavior is unacceptable to them. How do government
officials solve their problem? They kill or execute the person who is
causing the problem. Is it wrong to kill someone to solve a problem?... It is
akin to a lecture to children about the evils of smoking being delivered by a
lecturer who is puffing on a cigarette.' (Strieb 61)
The next deals with the lack of maturity that most juveniles show. Every juvenile is
dealing with enormous amounts of stress everyday. It is these pressures that affect the
deterrent effect of the juvenile death penalty. Each juvenile deals with this stress in a
different way, however, because of this stress, many adolescents act impulsively at times.
Henry Heft explains that
'Peer pressure and family environment subject adolescents to enormous
psychological and emotional stress. Adolescents respond to stressful
situations by acting impulsively and without the mature judgments expected
from adults. These characteristics are shared by all adolescents...Thus, the
possibility of capitol punishment is meaningless to juveniles and has no
deterrent effect.' (Heft 30)
Finally it can be seen that not only does the death penalty hold no deterrent for
juveniles but in some cases it act as an incentive for crime. This can happen for two
separate reasons. The first deals with the peer pressure mentioned above. Because death is
seen as 'the ultimate stake' the committing of a crime that would warrant the death penalty
could put a juvenile in a position to gain great respect from his peers. The second deals
with the hypocrisy, also mentioned above. With the state legitimizing killing as it does,
some minors are compelled and encouraged to commit crime. It is as though they feel no
responsibility to abide by the laws the government sets down when that government doesn't
follow them itself.
The problems surrounding the death penalty go far beyond the actual juveniles
(un)affected by it. Through the debate over it's justification as well as the actual carrying
out of an execution all of society is affected. These effects range from the millions being
spent on the appeals process to the racist way it is carried out. Whatever the effect may be,
it is not something that can be swept under the rug. These are issues which are present in
Proponents of the death penalty like it because it saves billions compared to life in
prison. That would be true if one were comparing the cost of electricity for the electric
chair, or the price of rope for a hanging. Unfortunately these are not the only costs involved
with putting a person to death. There are a countless number of appeals granted in every
capital case. All of these cases require prosecutors, defense attorneys, and other court fees;
all of which costs money. The majority of this money ends up falling onto the taxpayers,
seeing as most juveniles in capital cases lack the needed funds. The bottom line is that the
average death row case costs a significant amount more then life imprisonment would. In
fact Carl Horwitz explains that 'In comparison to life imprisonment capitol cases cost
about two million dollars more.' (Horwitz 4) These costs come about largely in part
because of the extensive appeals process that is involved in every capital case.'
Possibly the worst result of having the death penalty is its tendency to block other
programs. This happens for two distinct reasons. The first is because the death penalty is
seen by many as an 'end all' solution. With the death penalty in place it seems as though
many feel that nothing else is needed. However there seems to also be some structural
barriers that the death penalty puts into place. In areas where the juvenile death penalty is
in place there are a lower number of programs such as community policing or midnight
basketball. Bright tells us that
'The policies resulting from this approach are costing our society a
tremendous price in money, in the corruption of the judiciary, and in
diverting millions of dollars from education, drug programs, community
policing, and other programs that would actually help to prevent crime.'
The next way the juvenile death penalty adversely affects society has to do with an
age old dilemma; racism. Time and time again it is argued that capitol cases are the modern
equivalent to something along the line of the Ku Klux Klan. There are several informal
statistics which lead people to believe that the death penalty is racist. These statistics
include the higher number of capital cases found in the South. However there are more
significant arguments to be made. Racism can be found both in charging, sentencing, and
imposition of the death penalty. Steve Radic tells us that
' Presently, about half the people on death row are from minority groups
that represent only about twenty percent of the country's population.
About forty percent of those who have been executed since the death
penalty was allowed to resume in 1976 have been African-Americans,
even though they constitute only twelve percent of the population.'(Radic 4)
We are living in a time of increased crime and violence. With teenagers growing up
as murders there is obviously something not working. James Fox believes that
'given the worsening conditions in which children are raised, given the
breakdown of all our institutions as well as of our cultural norms, given our
wholesale disinvestment in youth, we will likely have many more then
5,000 teen killers per year.... Our nation faces a future bloodbath of juvenile
violence that will make 1996 look like the good old days.' (Fox 71)
When it comes down to it, it is time to start working on crime before it happens
rather then after. One way to start this process it to eliminate one of the most costly, racist,
and ineffective policy ever enacted in this country.
Clearly there are issues surrounding the death penalty which need to be addressed.
If it is to continue to be used it must be re-examined. There are several factors which need
to be taken into consideration; not simply the sleep that families can get after an execution.
Whether it's the costs, its use as a deterrent, the death penalty continues to fail its intended
purpose. This is not something to be ignored, and it is not something that 'they' have to
deal with. The impacts of the death penalty affect us all. If nothing else these juveniles are
simply too young.
Bright, Steven. Young Blood. New York: Hampton and Row, 1993
Fox, James. 'Innocent Killers. Christian Science Moniter 12 Feb. 1996: 71-72
Heft, Henry. 'Deterring Juveniles.' A.B.A. Journal June 1989: 30
Horwitz, Carl. 'Effective Means of Deterring Criminals.' Crime and Criminals May1995:1
Kale, Allen. 'How does the public feel?' Time Aug. 1995: 35
Radic Steve. 'Searching For Answers.' Criminal Justice Ethics July 1996: 5
Strieb, Victor. Imposing the Death Penalty on Children. California: Sage, 1987