The U.S. Supreme Court ruled March 1 against applying the death penalty for juveniles, overturning a 1989 decision that allowed minors between the ages of 16 and 18 to be executed for their crimes.
In a 5-4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that it is cruel and unusual to put to death a person who was under the age of 18 when they committed a crime.
“Juvenile offenders cannot with reliability be classified among the worst offenders,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens, who voted in favor of the ban, along with Justices David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer.
This decision will mean that 72 convicted murderers on death row in 12 states will be re-sentenced.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, one of the dissenting votes, wrote that drawing an age-based line in regards to punishing people for their crimes would “protect a number of offenders who are mature enough to deserve the death penalty and may well leave vulnerable many who are not.”
David Elliot, communications director for the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty, sees this ruling as fair, saying that juveniles should not be held to the same standards as adults.
“We used to believe a person’s brain was fully formed by age 14,” Elliot said. “But science tells us (the brain is) still forming through the age of 18. The part that develops last is the reasoning part (of the brain). It stands to reason that (juveniles) can’t be held responsible for the most serious sentence, death, because they’re less culpable.”
Stefanie Faucher, program director for Death Penalty Focus, said the ruling could have happened because there is a growing concern that the United States must polish up their image to the rest of the world.
“There’s an evolving standard of decency,” Faucher said. “There’s a growing recognition that the international community is looking at the United States.”
Faucher said 31 states have already abolished the death penalty for juveniles. Faucher also notes that 12 states, and Washington D.C., have abolished the death penalty altogether.
“The (Supreme Court) decision affected the other states, but not California,” said Terry Thornton, spokesperson for the California Department of Corrections.
This is due to California’s penal code 190.5, which states “the death penalty shall not be imposed upon any person who is under the age of 18 at the time of the commission of the crime.”
Before the Supreme Court ruling, Texas led the nation in the number of inmates on death row who were minors when their crimes were committed, at 29. Alabama, with 14 inmates, and Mississippi, with 5 inmates, followed behind.
“The death penalty is largely a southern phenomena,” Elliot said. “Eighty-five percent of executions have occurred in the deep south and Texas.”
Faucher said she is glad that the Court ruled the way they did.
“Every time the Supreme Court makes a decision against the death penalty, we see people being re-sentenced and the death row population shrink,” Faucher said.
Three years ago, the Supreme Court struck down the death penalty for mentally retarded criminals, ruling that putting to death mentally disabled criminals was “cruel and unusual punishment.”