Capital Punishment: Mitigation for Youthful & Young Adult Offenders

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Juvenile Offenders

The juvenile justice system was developed to hold juvenile offenders accountable for delinquent acts while providing treatment, rehabilitative services, and programs designed to prevent future involvement in law-violating behavior. Until the late 19th century, youth were tried as adults, which was fueled by a 16th-century educational reform movement in England where it was determined youth were different than adults in terms of their development of moral and cognitive abilities.

Juvenile Case Law

Juvenile Case Law

There are three prominent cases to consider when discussing juveniles or youthful offenders that impacted how these cases were handled.

  • Roper V. Simmons (2005) – The court ruled that it was unconstitutional to impose a sentence of capital punishment to defendants who committed crimes while under the age of 18. Specifically, the court stated that juveniles lacked maturity and had an underdeveloped sense of responsibility. In addition, adolescents involved in the criminal justice system were seen as more vulnerable to negative influences, such as peer pressure, and the character of an adolescent was not fully formed as that of adults.
  • Graham V. Florida (2010) – The court determined life without parole sentences was prohibited for juvenile offenders convicted of non-homicide offenses per the Eighth Amendment of cruel and unusual punishment.
  • Miller V. Alabama (2012)  – In this case, the court decided that mandatory life without parole sentences, even for murder convictions, were prohibited for juvenile offenders.

Adolescent and Early Adult Brain Development

The human brain does not fully reach maturity until its mid-20s. The frontal lobe is one of the last areas to develop in the brain entirely. This lobe is responsible for controlling executive functioning. Skills with front lobe maturity allow an individual to think before acting, assess options, and plan a course of action. When executive functions are not fully developed, an individual has difficulty with planning, attention, and mental inflexibility, which impacts judgment and decision-making.

The prefrontal cortex is a second critical brain area that is not fully developed in adolescents or early adult brains. This area controls an individual’s ability to delay and reflect (or think before you act), consider all options (not act on impulse), weigh out risks and consequences, and social intelligence. Youth often lack the ability to think before they act, behave with impulsivity, have an increased sensation seeking, and are susceptible to peer pressure.

Environmental and Other Risk Factors

Environmental and Other Risk Factors

An extensive body of research spanning several decades demonstrates the association of childhood abuse, neglect, and family dysfunction with a wide range of negative outcomes, also known as the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

Sexual abuse, physical neglect, household substance abuse, mental illness, and having an incarcerated household member were linked to a risk of criminal behavior. Such adverse experiences early in life have been shown, among other outcomes, to impair the development of prosocial attitudes, peer relationships, and emotional regulation; exacerbate youths’ propensity for engaging in risky and/or potentially injurious behavior, including criminal behavior; and limit their capacity to inhibit or interrupt such behavior.

Other environmental risk factors include school violence, such as bullying; community violence, such as gang activity or growing up in a neighborhood with high crime. Other risk factors include the youths’ external influences, such as peers and friends.

Youth are more vulnerable to negative external influences, such as their peers. The presence of peers makes adolescents more likely to take risks and make risky decisions. In addition, youth have a desire and longing for peer approval and often have a fear of rejection. Fear and rejection can lead to poor decision-making. As a result, the youth may engage in antisocial behaviors to conform to their peers’ expectations or to achieve a level of status within their friend group.

At times the youths’ external influences may lead them to join a gang. Gangs often provide a youth with an opportunity to feel a part of a community of peers who can share love, support, and aid in someone’s future identity development. However, compared to youth who are not involved in a gang, gang members are more likely to be involved in delinquent behaviors, especially serious or violent ones.

Capacity to Change and Reform

The court has recognized the transience of youthful recklessness and the youth’s greater capacity for change and prospects for rehabilitation.

As an individual ages, they become more future-oriented and can consider significantly longer time frames in the future compared to an adolescent. As the brain continues to mature, improvements are seen over the course of adolescence with executive functions and the ability to control emotions and thoughts.

Punishment – More Harm Than Good

So, what is an appropriate punishment for a youth offender who has engaged in a serious violent offense where capital punishment is considered? Research has shown that a more responsible penalty for youth offenders is rehabilitation rather than death. Interventions for youth offenders should focus on allowing the development of psychosocial maturity.

If youth are treated as adults, and capital punishment is given, exposing these individuals to environments could limit their developmental process. Moreover, treating youthful offenders like adults can put the community at risk as they are more likely to commit new crimes.

Conclusion

The adolescent brain is less developed than the adult brain, and neurodevelopment continues well into early adulthood. The less developed and immature brain is associated with more sensation-seeking/risk-taking behaviors, impulsivity, vulnerability, and changeability.

As a result, adolescents are less able to control their behavior, less able to regulate their emotional responses, and they are unable to evaluate future consequences of their behavior. This has led the legal system to sentence youth and adults differently. As research shows, the brain does not fully develop until around the age of 25. Thus, there is a strong argument that an individual under 25 should be ineligible to receive capital punishment.

References

Zoellner, L.A. & Feeny, N.C. (Eds.) (2014). Resilience and recovery following trauma. New York, NY: Guilford Press.

Fletcher, J.M. & Schurer, S. (2017). Origins of adult personality: The role of adverse childhood experiences. HCEO Working Paper Series, University of Chicago; Keating, D. P. (2017). Born anxious: The lifelong impact of early life adversity – and how to break the cycle. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Johnson SB, Blum RW, Giedd JN. Adolescent maturity and the brain: the promise and pitfalls of neuroscience research in adolescent health policy. J Adolesc Health. 2009 Sep;45(3):216-21. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.05.016. PMID: 19699416; PMCID: PMC2892678.

Basto-Pereira M, Gouveia-Pereira M, Pereira CR, Barrett EL, Lawler S, Newton N, Stapinski L, Prior K, Costa MSA, Ximenes JM, Rocha AS, Michel G, Garcia M, Rouchy E, Al Shawi A, Sarhan Y, Fulano C, Magaia AJ, El-Astal S, Alattar K, Sabbah K, Holtzhausen L, Campbell E, Villanueva L, Gomis-Pomares A, Adrián JE, Cuervo K, Sakulku J. The global impact of adverse childhood experiences on criminal behavior: A cross-continental study. Child Abuse Negl. 2022 Feb; 124:105459. doi: 10.1016/j.chiabu.2021.105459. Epub 2022 Jan 8. PMID: 35007971.

Justice Analytical Services. (2018, May). Understanding childhood adversity resilience crime – gov. scot. The Scottish Government. Retrieved December 1, 2022, from https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/research-and-analysis/2018/05/understanding-childhood-adversity-resilience-crime/documents/00535550-pdf/00535550-pdf/govscot%3Adocument/00535550.pdf

Dana Peterson, Terrance J. Taylor & Finn-Aage Esbensen (2004) Gang membership and violent victimization, Justice Quarterly, 21:4, 793-815, DOI: 10.1080/07418820400095991

Steinberg, L., & Scott, E. S. (2003). Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence: Developmental Immaturity, Diminished Responsibility, and the Juvenile Death Penalty. American Psychologist, 58(12), 1009–1018. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.58.12.1009

Talia Stewart, Capital Punishment of Young Adults in Light of Evolving Standards of Science and Decency: Why Ohio Should Raise the Minimum Age for Death Penalty Eligibility to Twenty-Five (25), 70 Clev. St. L. Rev. 91 (2021)

Miller v. Alabama (2012) 567 U.S. 460 [132 S.Ct. 2455, 183 L.Ed.2d 407]

Roper v. Simmons (2005) 543 U.S. 551 [125 S.Ct. 1183, 161 L.Ed.2d 1]

Graham v. Florida (2010) 560 U.S. 48 [130 S.Ct. 2011 L.Ed.2d 285]

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