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Capital Punishment And Minors

      The death penalty is utilized as an optimistic view to alleviate much of what is morally and criminally wrong with our society. Yet in reality, capital punishment does nothing to improve America’s justice system by allegedly acting as a deterrent to the criminals. Nevertheless, Americans continue to execute adults and children on dubious principles. The execution of children is particularly outrageous. International and Federal standards sanction that children are exempt from the death penalty; not in order to grant absolution for their crimes, or to disparage the suffering of the victim’s family, but in recognition of their immaturity and potential for rehabilitation.

The cases of juvenile offenders on America’s death row continue to reflect more than just the specific concerns raised by their immaturity at the time of the offense, but represent the more important justification for a punishment that is antiquated. A closer look at capital punishment reveals problems that consist of a lack of ethics regarding a child’s life, a possible enormous risk of wrongful conviction, and a staggering amount of money spent that does not accomplish any means of deterring others from committing murder. In considering the appropriateness of capital punishment is the importance of understanding the federal laws, state laws, and the importance of international standards. Federal law determined that those under 18 are not adequately mature enough to make adult decisions. Those under 18 are not able to vote, they cannot legally drink, nor are they able to join the armed forces. By this reasoning, a juvenile whom the nation does not trust to make adult decisions should not be executed for choosing to perform the immoral act of murder.

The Supreme Court arrived at its 1988 decision that, in effect, acknowledged the al lot of cases involving minors; that there is an assumption that adolescents are too young to understand the consequences of their actions, and set the minimum age for execution at 16. Nevertheless, Melissa Sickmund, a senior research associate at the National Center for Juvenile Justice, believes that the minimum age is a function of the political landscape, “If the Supreme Court were to consider the 1988 case now it would have to take into account the ever more popular tendency of the states to try minors as adults.” Likewise, International Standards prohibit the death penalty against juvenile offenders, and organizations such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, American Covenant on Human Rights, and Safeguards Guaranteeing Protection of the Rights of Those Facing the Death Penalty agree that, “Persons below 18 years of age at the time of the commission of the crime shall not be sentenced to death” (in Amnesty International’s Campaign 2) and have been endorsed by the United Nations General Assembly to help ensure universal ethical treatment of children.

According to Amnesty International, the United States of America has carried out more documented executions of juvenile offenders than any other country. Ironically, the majority of these offenders who have been executed since 1990 were of serious or mental deprivation. These adolescents’ lifestyles consisted of a regular use of drugs and alcohol, and the children had a considerably lower than average intelligence. Many offenders had some type of brain damage, and most had poor or inexperienced legal counsel, which resulted in a loss of important information and incompetent representation. Unfortunately, even in America we continue to practice the barbaric execution of children and continue to ignore international standards. Sadly, there are inherent problems because the fear of execution does not deter crime.

Kevin Hughes, a diagnosed schizophrenic, provides a strong case study of mitigating circumstances that were overlooked in order to execute a minor. Sixteen year-old Hughes strangled and raped another child in March 1979. His relatives testified that Hughes suffered from, “. . . extreme mood swings, hear[d] voices, and [would] often be out of touch with reality.” His elder brother says that Kevin ‘believed that he had magical powers, and that there was some kind of magic that protected him. This was especially strange to listen to; because it was obvious from all the bad things he went through that nothing had ever protected him” (Amnesty International Report 25). Furthermore, Hughes was diagnosed as suffering from brain damage as a result of childhood abuse and had a sub average IQ. In this case, the jury was not properly instructed on how to review Hughes’ case, and the jury never heard evidence of Hughes’ abuse and neglect in his childhood or his mental illness. Hughes was sentenced to death in March of 1981. Hopefully an appeal will result in clemency; this is a boy who should not be sentenced to death, but should be treated in a facility that can help his state of mind.

Psychologically, it is impossible to use the death penalty as a deterrent, because those with no cognitive moral capacity are unable to understand its use as a punishment. According to Ernest van den Haag, “Capital punishment is regarded as unjust because it may lead to the execution of the innocents or because the guilty poor (or disadvantaged) are more likely to be executed than the guilty rich.” Considering the claim of injustice by reason of innocence, if an innocent man is convicted and sentenced to be executed, the penalty cannot be reversed. With this knowledge, a human being should not be morally able to put a child to death when alternatives such as life in prison can provide the same justice at a lower cost to America. This would serve as a deterrent, as much as those in prison could be rehabilitated. The child would not be able to become a martyr, and thus, his peers and community could see him in prison for life; which is an obvious deterrent.

The death penalty is unlike all other sentences, because it is irreversible. Marietta Jaeger, whose seven-year-old daughter was kidnapped, raped, and murdered, believes that the death penalty is wrong: “I say there is no amount of retaliatory deaths that would compensate to me the inestimable value of my daughter’s life, nor would they restore her to my arms or keep others from committing murder. To say that the death of any person would be just retribution is to insult the immeasurable worth of our loved ones who are victims.” Therefore, no notion of capital punishment as a deterrent can be applied to children, as much as the result can be gained by a child serving a life sentence with no possibility for parole. Taking a life for another life solves nothing, except to guarantee a tremendous expense to the state. According to Dieter, across the country, there are less police working, prisoners are being released early, the courts are overburdened, crime continues to increase, and the “economic recession has caused cutbacks in the backbone of the criminal justice system” (Dieter ). Dieter cites that the recession has caused Florida a budget crisis that resulted in the early release of 3,000 prisoners; Texas prisoners are only serving 20% of their time and re- arrests are prevalent; Georgia has laid off 900 correctional personnel, and New Jersey has had to dismiss 500 police officers. These states, and many others, amazingly continue to place money into the death penalty with no consequent reduction in crime. The higher cost to the state is due to the fact that the legal process in death penalty cases is very complicated, which reflects the jeopardy of taking someone’s life.

Death penalty trials are longer and more complicated than non-death penalty murder trials. According to Richard Dieter, “Over two-thirds of the states and the federal government have installed an exorbitantly expensive system of capital punishment which has been a failure by any measure of effectiveness. Literally hundreds of millions of dollars have already been spent on a response to crime which is calculated to be carried out on a few people each year, and which has done nothing to stem the rise in violent crime.” Anyone on trial for his life should be expected to mount an energetic defense. During a detailed trial that can include an intensive use of experts and investigators, this can become expensive. Furthermore, if convicted, death penalty cases require a sufficiently long “due process” in hopes to ensure the guilt of the convict. Such a lengthy process will never be inexpensive. The enormous cost of death penalty cases is realistically guaranteeing Americans a diminished safety, because of the redirection of money towards legal resources that are being diverted from effective crime fighting strategies. Examples of lack of money for innovations like community policing can be noted in California and Texas. Before the LA Riots, California spent an extra $90 million per year on capital punishment, yet somehow neglected the safety of the people. Texas has over 300 people, 50 of which are juveniles, on death row, and on average is spending an estimated $2.3 million per case, leading the country in executions of minors, and yet its murder rate remains one of the highest in the country.

Capital punishment is obviously not deterring the crime rate, and America continuously expends money on a punishment which does nothing but burden the people of that state. Even with the phenomenal amount of money funneled into capital punishment, it has been statistically proven that it does not lessen murder. In fact, crime committed by juveniles has increased steadily over the last few years. “According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, juvenile homicide arrests have increased by 170 percent in the last decade, while homicide arrest for adults during the same period have increased 25 percent.” Deterrence depends on the possibility and ability of human responses to danger, not the rationality of the person’s thoughts.

Realistically, when a human commits a crime, he should be punished for his crime in an appropriate manner which deprives him of certain pleasures, but not of everything life has to offer, which is what the death penalty ensures. Nor should we punish a person in a cruel and unusual way, but provide a sentence that requires the criminals to be punished by a severe method, which life in prison does. The value of a human life is immeasurable; therefore the death sentence does not provide retributions, because value of one murdered life does not equate to the value of another.

A suggested alternative for reducing crime can be provided through evidence by New York State’s policy on the death penalty. According to Dieter, New York does not utilize capital punishment, because of a study presented by the NY State Defenders Association found that the estimated cost to the state of  $1.8 million just for the trial and the first stages of appeal per defendant is too large of a burden. New York experienced a decline in every major crime in 1992 by implementing the increasingly popular concept of “community policing.” Community policing became, “a strategy for utilizing police officers not just as people who react to crime, but also as people who solve problems becoming an integral part of the neighborhoods they serve” (Dieter ). This program apparently works well when the government can afford to increase the amount of officers, rather than taking from existing numbers, leaving other work unattended. Crime rates can drop as much as 30 percent as seen in Boston, where more officers are able to support the community. The increasing costs of the death penalty are, in reality, making America less safe because of the loss of financial and legal resources that are presently being diverted from effective crime fighting programs. Implementing programs which have been siphoned off because of the death penalty, and working directly towards the front line goals on our war against crime would increase the safety for all Americans. Money towards the police, correctional systems, and neighborhood programs could install a safer community.

In conclusion, the above studies provide evidence that the death penalty is severely expensive, and provides no real justification for retributions, safety for the society, or a notion of responsibility for actions. Large sums of money that are focused on only a few individuals produces no gauge of adequate results to justify their spending to execute one person, while more effective and vital services to the community are being sacrificed.. In the end, maturity, mitigating circumstance, and psychological problems ought not to be by passed in order to gain a conviction for all, especially for minors, who do need adults to protect their best interests, regardless of the crime.

Rick

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