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Issues in Criminal Justice: Juveniles and the Death Penalty

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Criminology
Wordcount: 1842 words Published: 18th May 2020

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In both the Roper v. Simmons and the Miller v. Alabama cases, the Supreme court of the United States established that “children under 18 are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.” (Miller v. Alabama) The U.S. Supreme Court stated that the individual traits of juveniles reduce the penological justifications for imposing harsher sentences on the juvenile offenders, even though they have committed dreadful crimes. Juveniles tend to have such traits that include lack of maturity, vulnerability to negative influences and outside pressures, underdeveloped sense of responsibility, limited control over their environment, and capacity for change. In Miller vs. Alabama, the U.S. Supreme court stated that “the Eighth Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile offenders.” (Miller v. Alabama) It also established an assumption against life without parole stating that proper events for condemning adolescents to this harshest conceivable punishment will be uncommon (Miller v. Alabama) The person sentencing them must take into account that children are different therefore they should not be sentenced to a lifetime in prison.

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In 1993, Christopher Simmons planned and committed a capital murder. He was sentenced to death at only 17 years of age. He continuously appealed the courts until 2002, but each appeal was rejected. However, in 2002, the Atkins v. Virginia case ruling that stated executing the mentally disabled disregarded the Eighth and fourteenth Amendment denying cruel and unusual punishment on the grounds that a greater part of Americans thought that it was savage, the Missouri Supreme Court chose to reevaluate Simmons’ case. (Roper v.Simmons) The Missouri court decided then, 6-3, that executing minors was no longer constitutional due to the fact that many Americans had begun to oppose the execution of minors. However, the government argue that this could be dangerous because the courts could decide that executions prohibited by the Supreme court were now allowed due to a change in belief in the American people.

The execution of minors was found to violate the prohibition of “cruel and unusual punishment” found in the Eighth Amendment and applied to the states through the incorporation doctrine of the 14th Amendment. (Roper v. Simmons) Justice Kennedy delivered the opinion of the court. The court ruled that executing minors is “cruel and unusual punishment” prohibited by the Eighth Amendment. Justice Kennedy believed that adolescents should not be punished as harshly as adults. His opinion is supported by the findings of psychologists and other social scientists who studied adolescent behavior.

Justice O’Conner dissented to the ruling. He agreed that adolescents are less mature and therefore less liable for their misconduct than adults. He also stated that there are some 17-year-old murderers that are suitably matured to justify the death penalty in an appropriate case. He did not agree that it is cruel and unusual punishment for some adolescents. He argues that the court holds its decision based on the national consensus. He also indicated that capital sentencing juries are unable to correctly assess the maturity of a young defendant or give due weight to youth-related mitigating features. Justice O’Conner said that he would ask for a clearer indication that our society has really laid its face against this practice before it categorically reads the Eighth Amendment to ban it.

In 2003, Evan Miller, aged 14, and an accomplice killed Cole Cannon by beating and burning her. In 2004, Miller was moved to Lawrence County Circuit Court from a juvenile court to be tried on capital assassination as an adult. In 2006, Miller was indicted and found guilty. The court sentenced Miller without the option of parole to a compulsory life imprisonment term. Miller filed for a new trial. He stated that sentencing a 14-year old to life in prison without the possibility of parole was cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment. The Supreme court of Alabama denied his motion for a new trial. Like Evan Miller, Kuntrell Jackson was also tried and convicted of capital murder and aggravated robbery in July 2003. He was found guilty of robbing a movie store with two other boys. The trial court sentenced Jackson without the possibility of parole to a mandatory life imprisonment term. Jackson submitted a petition in 2008 to overturn his decision arguing that his sentence was uncommon and excessive, violating his eighth and fourteenth amendments freedoms. Supreme Court of Arkansas denied Jackson’s appeal.

The imposition of a lifetime sentence without parole on a 14-year-old kid violates the ban on cruel and unusual punishment of the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments as seen by a majority decision. Judge Elena Kagan reversed and remanded the choices of the Arkansas and Alabama Supreme Courts. She ruled that a mandatory sentencing structure does not take into account the family and home environment. The Court ruled that the ban on cruel and unusual punishment by the Eighth Amendment prohibits compulsory sentencing of life in prison without the option of parole for perpetrators of juvenile homicide. For sentencing reasons, children are constitutionally distinct from adults. The decision was dissented by Justice Roberts. He argued that the function of the Court is to apply the law, not answer morality and social policy questions. The majority did not describe the penalty as uncommon enough, so the penalty did not violate the Eighth Amendment.

Justice Kennedy’s Roper claim was that juries should never be allowed to impose the death penalty on an adolescent no matter how depraved the adolescent’s conduct may be. Positions are reversed in the Miller case. In the Miller case, Kennedy is a member of the majority which concludes that juries should have the discretion to reject a prosecution request for life-without-parole when considering the conduct of adolescent offenders. The Miller case shows that adolescents are different from adults. Adolescents are affected by many factors that can determine whether they engage in criminal behavior or not. Miller grew up in an unstable home and was known to be a troubled child, attempting suicide four times. Some individuals cannot control their environmental factors and therefore are prone to crime. These factors include family environment, harsh and inconsistent punishment, constant of physical and emotional harm and parental conflict.

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There is a distinct difference between adolescents and adults and therefore the standards of justifications for punishment should be based on the deterrence theory. Individuals who choose to engage in crime are rational and choose to engage in crime if they believe it is to their advantage. The best way to prevent crime, therefore, is through punishments that are swift, certain, and appropriately severe. (Cullen, Agnew, & Wilcox, 2018) The key word being appropriately. Adolescence is marked by immaturity, and failure to appreciate risks and consequences which does not allow them to make sound judgements. Adolescents are even seen to be less responsible as almost every state prohibits them from voting, buying alcohol and cigarettes, and getting married without parental consent.

 The adolescent brain is scientifically different from the adult brain. Science tells us by the logic and reasoning skills are almost fully developed by the time we are sixteen. Adolescents still need to practice these skills to mature. It has been shown that those under the age of eighteen still make less than wise decisions due to the fact that they are less efficient than adults in processing information and do not have the same level of experience in making important decisions. Children under the age of eighteen tend to fall into peer pressure and will commit a crime with their friends. When adolescents have support from families, peers, and the community, along with the resources to learn and explore safely, they can thrive, even after adverse early experiences or in the face of current challenges. They are adaptable to their social and physical environments in ways that can shape life-long trajectories that are stated in the theories of continuity or change. As young people join adolescence, their developmental task is to overcome the maturity gap caused by the discrepancy between their biological development of adults and the expectation of contemporary society that they will for several years refrain from adult activities (e.g., sexual activity, smoking, drinking). Their motive for delinquency is this gap between social and biological maturity. This brings desistance when they join adulthood. The gap in maturity closes and standard roles for adults become accessible. The effects of crime are escalating and they have a reduced delinquency attraction.

The courts deciding to end equal harsher punishments for juveniles was supported by brain science, social science research and behavioral research. Justice Kennedy noted that the impulsiveness, recklessness, and peer pressure susceptibility of juveniles naturally made them less accountable than adults. Kennedy also observed the rehabilitation potential of juveniles as their personality and character characteristics are transitory and less fixed than those of adolescents. Since both the Roper and Miller case, it had become widely accepted that adolescents are less mature than adults. There is no question that adolescents who commit severe offences should be held responsible and punished, and that society should be shielded from violent and harmful young individuals. But surveys indicate that the large majority of adolescents who commit offences – even very severe offences – are growing up to be law-abiding adults, and that reliably predicting which juvenile offenders will become career criminals is difficult. In the absence of our ability to do this, and given what development science tells us about the ability of adolescents to change, locking up any young offender and throwing away the key makes no sense.


  • Cullen, F. T., Agnew, R., & Wilcox, P. (2018). Criminological theory: past to present: essential readings. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Steinberg L, Scott E: Should Juvenile Offenders Ever Be Sentenced to Life without the Possibility of Parole? Human Development 2010;53:53-54. doi: 10.1159/000288207
  • Roper v. Simmons, 125 S.Ct. 1183 (2005); 543 U. S. ____ (2005), United States Supreme Court, 1 March 2005
  • Miller v. Alabama, __ U.S. __, 132 S. Ct. 2455, 2477 (2012).


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