Fortunately, in a 2005 decision, the death penalty for people under the age of 18 was abolished by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Case of Roper v. Simmons. In today’s America, where knee-jerk reactions and a lust for vengeance rather than justice permeate public sentiment, this can only be considered a good thing. We are one of a handful of “civilized” societies on the Earth that still vigorously and almost enthusiastically embraces the death penalty.
The fact that this issue is something that people are even willing to debate, whether or not we should execute “child offenders”, should scare most reasonable and intelligent people. Surely if there is a candidate for reasonable doubt as to their intent and their hope for rehabilitation it’s a child, right?
I will assume for the sake of this argument that the question relates to cases where the death of one or more people is the result of the crime in which the “child” is involved. I will further assume we are talking about a crime where by all obvious evidence the death was intentional, That is, it was not an accident or the result of negligence. The “child” did in fact attack and kill their victim in a deliberate and premeditated action; an event that most definitely can and does happen.
It’s a sad indictment of today’s “modern” youth, but the fact is that children can and in many cases have willfully, knowingly and with premeditation killed. Often with a brazenness and voluntary commitment to the task that makes their actions almost incomprehensible to most adults. It is their “age” that becomes the critical factor when it comes time to deal with such “child offenders” and their crimes. Simply put, at what age does the child end and the killer begin?
The biggest argument in favor of leniency when it comes to children is that they do not have the life experience to fully understand the consequences of their actions. But just how much can we apply that presumption of innocence before we enter a stage of denial that prevents us from seeing the child for what they really are? A deliberate murderer.
When a “child” can disassemble a semi-automatic assault weapon and has been schooled in gun safety by responsible adults, can that child still be regarded as one who is not aware of the power and destruction that weapon after they kill their schoolmates?
It has been documented that many urban gangs require new members, many children barely in their teens, to kill someone as a rite of passage. Many of these “children” fulfill these membership requirements with a skill that belies their youth. Should these children be given the benefit of a doubt that they are too young to understand what they did after they gun down the victim?
The varying definitions of just what a “child” even is under the law makes the legal issue even murkier. An offender under ten years old is far removed from that of a seventeen year old. Yet in the eyes of the law they can both be considered “child offenders”.
In many states Courts have begun to deal with these cases by first determining if the child can be tried as an adult. However, even in these cases the decisions as to when a child can be considered an adult for the purposes of trail varies dramatically from state to state. The difference in the laws and the actions they allow the court to take are so wide and varied, that trying to find some median to judge the issue is impossible.
The fact is that there is no clear definition, legally speaking, as to just what a “child” is. We, the people are more often than not the final judges in the court of public opinion. We need to realize that the Death Penalty is every bit the deadly weapon that these “child offenders” used to dole out their lust for violence. Using that power in an arbitrary or capricious manner makes us every bit as dangerous as any killer on the street.
As responsible people, if we decide to use the death penalty as a tool of justice and not vengeance, we are obligated to use as much discretion and restraint in its application when it comes to children of any age. Surely erring in the hope that that youth can be rehabilitated and allowing them the time to prove themselves worthy of that hope is better than rushing to judgment and killing hope altogether.