Young Voices

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Why is there an age limit on 'liberty and justice for all?'

On March 1, 2005, our Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision, decided to outlaw any execution of persons who committed murder while under the age of 18. Because of this ruling, instead of the death sentence, juvenile offenders will get a life sentence. What does this mean in reality? While a life sentence seems like a long time and seems like a fair punishment, it is really only 20 years. Then we have to take into account the percentage of a sentence that the average convict serves. This amounts to only 50 or 60 percent of the sentence, which is only 10-12 years. Is this justice?

What does justice mean to you? I see it as the upholding of what is just and due reward for our actions. If you commit an adult crime, you should get an adult punishment.

The Missouri court said putting minors to death was a violation of the US Constitution, which outlaws "cruel and unusual" punishment. This particular ruling overturned a death sentence given to Christopher Simmons, who was 17 on Sep. 8, 1993, when he broke into neighbor Shirley Crook's house, kidnapped her and threw her, bound and gagged, from a bridge to her death. He is soon to be released at the age of 29. Is this justice?

The Supreme Court's decision also canceled the death sentences of 72 others for crimes they committed while younger than age 18. One of those inmates, Shermaine A. Johnson, 26, had been awaiting execution in Virginia for a rape and murder he committed in 1994 at age 16. Virginia set a minimum death-penalty eligibility age at 16, but that is now unconstitutional. He will also be set free. Is this justice?

Ironically, Judge Kennedy supported the recent April 2003 ruling, which granted Oklahoma's request to reinstate the death sentence of a 17-year-old offender after a federal appeals court had blocked it. This makes me question his decision for switching to the side that opposes it when clearly he sees nothing morally, or unconstitutionally, wrong with executing juveniles. Judge Kennedy said he was "very concerned" that gangs might use juveniles as "hit men" if there were no death penalty. I had never thought of this, but now it makes me worried that things like this will start to happen.

One of the court's judges opposed to the decision, Sandra Day O'Connor, argued that, "Chronological age is not an unfailing measure of psychological development, and common experience suggests that many 17-year-olds are more mature than the average young 'adult'." I completely agree. Even here at BV, we have many students who are not 18 who are fully capable of making excellent decisions and who complete education alongside 22 year-olds. What this decision means is, even if these 17 year-olds have the same mental capacity as everyone else on campus, they are essentially only going to get 20 years for murder whereas any other adult might get the death penalty.

It takes a long trial and a very difficult decision by a judge before minors are even sent to an adult court for a trial. Then they have to go through another difficult and grueling trial phase to determine guilt under the standards for adults. Even after being found guilty, they must be presented in front of 12 other citizens who determine if they should get the death penalty. Essentially, these juveniles go through an extra trial compared to adults. It is rare, and much harder, for a juvenile to be sentenced to death. This makes me think that these teens must have committed a severe or unusually gruesome crime to have gotten that far in the system. Why should they be allowed more freedom?