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The first juvenile offender was executed in the United States in 1692. Since then, almost 362 juvenile convicts have been sentenced to death row at both the state and the federal levels. To date, juvenile executions account for 1.8% of the total convictions carried out by the United States since the year 1968. In 1899, Jane Addams, having recognized the vulnerable nature of juvenile offenders as compared to adult offenders, started a separate justice system for juveniles in Illinois. The objective of the initiative was to save children from the destructive nature of punishments given by the mainstream courts and to rehabilitate them individually. Jane Addams was of the opinion that children were of less cognitive ability, mental capacity, capability of judgment and emotional control than adults. A juvenile justice system, which rehabilitated and deterred juveniles from committing crimes, was started.

The movement suffered a blow from 1973 to 2001, an era during which juveniles were subjected to stringent punishments, including executions. There was a movement pushing for the treatment of juveniles as adults, and in 1999, 11 year old Nathaniel Abraham from Michigan was charged with murder and executed. The measures put in place to ensure that juvenile offenders were treated as adults included statutory exclusions, direct filing by the prosecutor, presumed waiver by the juvenile, and mandatory waiver under state laws. This movement focused entirely on the gravity of the crime and totally disregarded age as a mitigating factor.

Opinions in Favor of Juvenile Death Penalty

Supporters of the juvenile death penalty call for punitive measures against juveniles who commit offences. The majority of citizens in the United States favor the death penalty as the best form of punishment for anybody who is guilty of committing a murder. The support for executing juveniles is lower than that of adults, but it is still considerable. According to them, the main purpose of a justice system is to protect the safety of the public above any other interest (Vito & Kiel, 2006). A Gall-Up survey reported that the juvenile death penalty is likely to be supported by upper-class white males, while females, black people, low-income people, and minorities in general are likely to oppose it. Philosophies on the death-penalty are categorized into offender based and offence based. Proponents of the death penalty are in the offence based camp, which propagates the view that punishment should be based on the severity of the offence committed. Opponents of the juvenile death penalty, on the other hand, are in the offender-based camp.

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On April 20, 1999, two teenagers planted bombs and shot their colleagues to death in the infamous Columbine massacre that claimed fifteen lives. These incidents heightened the public outrage by creating the impression that a juvenile crime was not properly controlled. In a Gall-Up poll, those interviewed did not distinguish juveniles from adults when the case involves punishment for a violent crime. Proponents of the death penalty for juveniles acknowledge the fact that the basic foundations of criminal law recognize that children carry diminished responsibility for their acts. However, in case of violent crimes such as murder and sexual offences, many are reluctant to embrace the doctrine of diminished responsibility. They emphasize the fact that “justice demands that heinous crimes regardless of the age of the accused be dealt with to the full extent as the law provides”.

The dissenting judges in ROPER V. SIMMONS, which outlawed the death penalty for juvenile offenders, opined that, while executing juvenile offenders was cruel, exceptions should be made whereby the juvenile in question had committed a heinous atrocity. Juvenile offenders could not be compared to mentally retarded people, because mentally retarded people lacked moral and cognitive capabilities, whereas juveniles were able to differentiate between right and wrong. The dissenting judges held that the discretion on whether to send a juvenile offender to death row should rest with the jury or the presiding judge. The murder of another human being is profoundly wrong regardless of the age of the offender.

In the case under consideration, 17 year old Christopher Simmons had contemplated murdering someone for a long time. He had discussed together with his friends a plan to break into somebody’s house, tie the victim, and push her or him down a bridge. He convinced his friends that nothing could be done to them because they were juveniles. Following this, he burgled the home of Shirley Crook together with his friend. They blindfolded her and bound her with a tape. They then took her to a railway yard, tied her limbs with electrical wire, filled her whole face with duct tape, then threw her into a river whereby she drowned. Simon later bragged about the murder to his friends. He confessed and was convicted for the crime in Missouri.

Those in support of the death penalty accorded to juveniles argue that the leniency of the juvenile system ingrains a perception that juvenile offenders will not be held responsible for the crimes they commit. The system has a lot of faults; the fact that proceedings are held in camera means that judges do not have access to criminal records of juveniles since they are protected from stigmatization. This creates a loophole as people who have already served sentences in juvenile institutes or probation are deemed to be first offenders when they are presented before criminal courts, which may lead to their release, causing a lot of trauma for the victim’s family.

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Those who support the death penalty insist that the juvenile system has failed to realize its rehabilitative objective. In the wake of the Columbine attacks, it came to public attention that the offenders Dylan Keloid and Eric Harris had been previously charged with breaking into a van. They had been put in a juvenile diversion program. If they could successfully complete the program, the event would be purged away from their records. Within eleven months, they were able to convince everyone that they were apologetic by speaking to counselors, attending workshops, and participating in volunteer programs. Meanwhile, the whole time they were making plans for a large scale brutal attack in their school that resulted in a massacre. If their criminal records had been kept, they would have been deterred from committing another crime, especially within such a short span. Moreover if they had been sentenced to death, they would not have been in a position to mastermind the Columbine massacre.

Those who root the death penalty further argue that the extent of violence demonstrated by juveniles in the United States is higher than in other developing and developed countries. The measures taken by other states to outlaw the juvenile death penalty cannot be compared to or applied in the United States because the scenario is more drastic. Whereas the rate of homicides committed by adults was declining, the rate of homicides committed by juveniles was escalating at an alarming rate in the 1990s, creating the need for more stringent measures, including the death penalty, to be put in place. To the public, the juveniles seem to lack conscience as they are portrayed in reports by the media about the heinous offences that they commit.

The juvenile death penalty is a cheaper and quicker alternative as opposed to rehabilitation efforts, which are lengthy and costly to the taxpayer. Rehabilitation may fail, and the juvenile may commit the same offence again; therefore, an exercise is in vain. Retributive results from the juvenile death penalty are immediately visible to the public, because the offender in question is completely incapacitated from committing another offence. The results achieved from rehabilitation take time to become apparent to the public, and they are based on a trial and error approach since it is not guaranteed that rehabilitation will result in reform of the offender.

Some extremists even argue that young criminals should be treated more severely than adults to deter them from the future illegal activity. The approach used in states where the juvenile death penalty is legal is based on the declaration of juvenile offenders as “legal adults” and placing them outside the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. The criminal nature of delinquency allows state authorities to declare that some offenders are beyond control and cannot be treated as children. The recognition is the basis of the waiver policy, which involves transferring legal jurisdiction of the most serious and experienced juvenile offenders to the adult court for criminal prosecution.

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An ABC poll indicated that 55% of citizens believed that crime and not the age of the perpetrator should be the main determinant of the sentence accorded. The policy of waiver embraces the concept that serious juvenile offenders should face the same repercussions as adults. The rehabilitation dimension is, thus, done away with. It is reserved for those who commit the most heinous crimes such as murder or rape.

Various transfer methods are used to transfer juveniles to adult jurisdiction. Judicial waiver gives the judge jurisdiction to determine whether the minor should be transferred. Under discretionary waiver, the judge is personally allowed to make the waiver after evaluating the various aspects pertaining to the case. Under mandatory waiver, a statute sets out that certain crimes must be transferred; while under presumptive waiver, the burden of proof that he or she is amenable to treatment in the juvenile rather than the adult court is placed on the juvenile.

The Supreme court listed the grounds for transferring juveniles in KENT V. UNITED STATES. They are: the risk that the offender posed to the community; the severity of the offence committed; whether the offence was premeditated or violent; whether the offense was committed to persons or property with greater weight being given to persons; sophistication of the maturity and character of the juvenile; the juvenile’s criminal history; and the likelihood that the juvenile can be rehabilitated.

The other form of transfer is a direct file, whereby the prosecutor is the one with discretion to charge a minor who commits certain offences in an adult court. Statutory exclusion, on the other hand, involves complete removal of certain offences from the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. It is reserved for serious felonies committed by older juveniles or juveniles who have prior adjudications for felonies in juvenile court.

The people in the camp advocating for the juvenile death penalty base their claims on the premise that children today develop capabilities and become sophisticated at a young age and are, therefore, in a capacity to understand the consequences of their crimes. They argue that due to various deficiencies, the juvenile system should be done away with and children should be granted due process rights and go through a full trial just like adults because a crime is a crime, no matter who committed it; and a criminal is a criminal regardless of his or her age. Releasing Jon Venables and Robert Tompson, murderers of the two year old James Bulger, on parole even before eight years had expired was outrageous and did nothing to deter the two delinquents. If they had been subjected to an adult system, they would have appreciated the consequences of their actions.

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