A Step to End Death Penalty

What a difference 16 years can make in the way the Supreme Court rules on whether juveniles should be put to death for committing a capital crime.

In 1989, the high court upheld the death penalty for juvenile offenders as constitutional. This week, in Roper v. Simmons, it overturned that decision by voting 5-to-4 that executing criminals under 18 violates the Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

This ruling, like the court's 2002 decision ending the death penalty for persons with mental retardation, stands as an affirmation of this nation's humanity - one that clearly recognizes children as different from adults and who therefore must be treated differently.

The majority opinion, delivered by Justice Anthony Kennedy, supports the sound notion that American society has sufficiently evolved since the court's early decisions to a new interpretation of the Constitution. Said Justice Kennedy: "The age of 18 is the point where society draws the line for many purposes between childhood and adulthood." Indeed, young people aren't allowed to vote or serve in the military until 18.

Still, Justice Antonin Scalia provides a useful warning in his dissent that "It is entirely consistent to believe that young people ... lack judgment, but, at the same time, to believe that those who commit premeditated murder are ... just as culpable as adults," - a point that suggests society needs to keep considering just when and how to hold juveniles accountable.

Dissenting justices also argue that because 20 states still authorize the death penalty for juveniles, no consensus actually exists.

But Kennedy is right when he notes that most states (and now nearly the entire international community) don't allow the death penalty for juveniles. And the trend has been for American states to abolish it - five more since 1989.

This decision reflects a hope that children, no matter how heinous their crime might be, don't always have the moral capacity to understand the consequences of their actions, but do have the capacity to learn from their mistakes. The five majority justices based their reasoning as much on that progress in thought as on their collective reevaluation of past rulings.

The high court's decision also helps chip away at a lingering desire for the death penalty in the US. When elected officials and courts can agree that the death penalty remains a barbaric eye-for-an-eye solution that puts society on par with the murderer, even more progress will have been made.

Upholding the sanctity of life is necessary in order to perpetuate it.

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