Saturday, 5 March 2005

More on Youthful Criminals

My previous post on the Supreme Court decision was also posted on WatchBlog, where it predictably drew a fair amount of comment from those who see the enormity of some of the crimes committed by juveniles as a reason to make an exception to their exemption from the death penalty.

The very first comment from Rocky was typical:
I couldn't disagree with you more. There are crimes that are so heinous that the death penalty cannot be taken off the table.

It obviously should be used sparingly, and I don't know at what age the cutoff point should be, but to drop the death penalty alltogether is unconscionable.

The discussion moved more toward the capacity for youth to understand fully the ramifications of their crime, with one 16-year-old, Leon, taking strenuous exception to exempting youth from responsibility.

I wasn't surprised to find that this issue doesn't divide people neatly along liberal or conservative lines, as Leon is a self-described liberal, whereas Jack, one of the most capable conservative voices over at WatchBlog came out in favor of the Supreme Court ruling, noting among other things that the factor of deterrence is least likely to have sway over rashful young offenders.

More recently someone commenting as K offered this:
There seems to be a lot of discussion pertaining to what a child "knows" to be "wrong" and an adult "knows" to be "wrong". These words can mean a great many things, but I think what we should mean by "wrong", is "immoral" in the sense of critical, rational morality. And I think many of us would question a teenager's ability to understand critical morality. However, I think the death penalty proponents mean "wrong" in the sense of "forbidden". Clearly, a child knows what is forbidden and what is not, as does a teenager, but it is doubtful, in my view, that either of them really understands WHY a great many things are forbidden, which is the real issue. Ultimately, understanding wrongness hinges upon the understanding of another person's pain, which is usually the underpinning for any sort of critical morality.

To which I responded:

Thanks K for some philosophical perspective.

Because I'm certain those who have argued for greater responsibility for youth will take exception to your assertion that a teenager does not yet understand WHY something is wrong, or have the ability to understand critical morality, I would refine your distinction. Let's all agree that between childhood and adulthood humans develop (or should develop) that critical morality which you speak of. Leon is quite certain at age 16 for instance that he CAN empathize with others and rationally understand the moral consequences of his actions. But he is continuing to mature in that regard, and cannot know at age 16 what his moral understanding will be in his mid-twenties. I would posit, for instance, that the angry retributive language that he used to describe what should happen to the worst offenders will likely be tempered by that time. In fact such a response is indicative of the rashness of youth which was referred to in the opinion. Leon's rashness will not manifest in barbarous acts against innocent victims because he is in fact much more mature morally and rationally (and likely the beneficiary of a much better upbringing - though I cannot know that) than the troubled youth who have committed awful crimes.

The court acknowledges in the ruling that drawing any age line is subject to arbitrariness, but 18 is the age "where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood and the age at which the line for death eligibility ought to rest."

We all agree that an 8-year-old should not be put to death, and a line should be drawn somewhere. I believe that the line should be drawn nationally and not left to the whims of individual state legislatures which are subject to the political pressures of the day.

Another sentence from the ruling which was a bit difficult to parse, but which is important is:
An unacceptable likelihood exists that the brutality or cold-blooded nature of any particular crime would overpower mitigating arguments based on youth as a matter of course, even where the juvenile offender's objective immaturity, vulnerability, and lack of true depravity should require a sentence less severe than death.

In other words the court felt that it was too likely that a jury would be too overpowered by the terrible brutality of a crime to properly account for the mitigating factors of youth. To me the discussion here proves that point.

I'm not saying these kids aren't bad, but there is a significant difference between their rashness and meanness and that of someone who has hardened that into adulthood. The awfulness of their crime tells us nothing of their fitness to be tried as an adult and sentenced to death. If 1000 teens commit heinous crimes over a 10 year period and 50 are put to death, I have no confidence that juries will have picked the "right 50" given the sensationalism of these cases. Simply put we are better off removing the option from the table. As Jack stated youthful offenders are the least likely to be deterred by what is arguably a meager threat of a death penalty.

People who do heinous things are sometimes redeemed, such as the author of the hymn Amazing Grace, and as a society it speaks ill of us if we give up on the possibility of redemption for such youthful offenders. For that reason I personally would take life imprisonment off the table as a possibility for minors, but that will have to wait a few decades before we mature as a society to understand that as well.

1 comment:

TomF said...

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Great reporting. Thanks