Repost: Should Juvenile Offenders get the Death Penalty?

Posted Aug 31, 2000

NOTE: This is a repost of an article I wrote. I originally wrote in back around 2000 or so. I'm transferring it here to keep it together with my recent writings.

This article comes about due to a response I received to the article
"How do we stop child violence?"

Neal wrote:

"Right now my critical thinking class is preparing to hold a debate on whether or not juveniles should be subject to the death penalty.
I am arguing against.
I would greatly appreciate any input you might have on the subject. You are correct in most of the things you have said here. I believe your response would be reasonable at least.
Thank you for your time...Rock on."

Since I am wholeheartedly for all classes that teach how to use your head and think, I've decided to take his request and write a new article about this sticky subject.

Should juvenile offenders get the death penalty?

(NOTE: while I will be using statistics for the USA, I am fully aware that this is an international subject and my points are meant to work under all societies.)

This subject is difficult at best for the simple reason that it combines three very troublesome issues:

  1. Crime
  2. The death penalty
  3. Children

These are each emotional issues in and of themselves and even more so when they are placed together. However, the fact is that these three topics are bound together more often then we care to admit for reasons that I will explain below.

In order to better see this situation in a more understanding light we must realize that these are emotional issues and that many (if not most) people do NOT share the same viewpoints as ourselves. To enter into debate assuming that the others involved should feel the same about the situation that we do is counterproductive.

Having said that, I'll state my stance on this situation and why.

First off we must remember that the death penalty is meant for extreme cases where every other option (such as short term incarceration, and/or financial fines) does not appear viable in deterring this criminal from creating another atrocious crime (usually murder).

Historically speaking, the death penalty has been an option in almost every known society since the dawn of human kind. Let's face it: Normally, people don't want to die. It has been proven time and time again that when there is no sufficient deterrent against an action then that action will occur even if it is considered "bad". How often have you broken a rule to get something knowing full well that nothing would happen to you even if you did get caught? (The historical situation of the 1992 Los Angeles riots where normally law abiding people stole simply because they felt that they could get away with it in all the confusion is a perfect example.) The severity of the action is not important. The important thing to realize is that people will cheat if they think that they can get away with it.

That fact is the reason rules are created in the first place. Your conscience is simply your internal self-policing system punishing you for not following the laws of the land. When that internal system fails, external rules and threats of punishment are needed.

And in fact it is in children where this fear and respect for the laws and their consequences are aimed first, strongest and most importantly. Every child that comes to this world does so with no preconceived notions and no experience. This also means that they inherently have no clue between the differences of right and wrong. These are lessons that are taught as we grow up. Some learn these lessons better than others. Sometimes, situations arise due to incorrect parent reactions, changes in laws, and/or societal "hiccups" that create a lack of respect and no fear for the possible backlashes of breaking major rules.

Historically, we have found that these situations start off in small "tests" as the child checks the waters to see what they can and can't get away with. This is natural for all children and is a normal part of the growing/learning process of human life. The problem begins when a test (such as bullying a kid during recess) does not conclude with any harsh punishment, or punishment that is not sufficient to persuade the child from trying it again, then the actions increase in some manner to see if they can get away with it at the next level. If left unchecked, eventually a mentality is acquired stating "Who cares what I do? I can get away with it. And if they do catch me then so what? I know what the penalty is and it doesn't faze me at all." It is this thought pattern that opens the door to major problems.
(I specifically remember a time when I was 17 and a *friend* was trying to get me to cash stolen checks and tried to justify it to me by saying "Hey you're not 18 yet. They can't do anything to you. If you get caught you'll just spend the night in jail and that's it. They seal your records when you become 18 anyway so no one will ever know. Come on. This may your last chance to be able to absolutely get away with breaking the law." Truth be told, I almost did it, and I've never broken the law in my life. I'm just lucky I came to my senses before we got to the check cashing place. I can fully understand why other kids would fall for that line if I almost did.)

Unfortunately it is children (especially at the teenage years) that are most prone to start this type of mentality. By the time most people become adults their major outlook on laws and rules has already been created and tend to stay that way barring any traumatic occurrence that forces them to reevaluate their views.

This is not a mental illness as some attorneys and anti-death penalty activists have tried to reason. A mental illness indicates that something highly irregular has occurred in the brain, presumably before or during birth, not with the child rearing process. Trying to compare people who have been raised wrong somehow and do not care about rules, regulations and life to the truly mentally sick is a true example of stupidity and a simple exercise to rewrite the English language in order to achieve a goal.

The fear of death has always been a strong deterrent from doing highly immoral actions. Although this may be viewed as a bad example even organized crime knows this fact. The occasional murder of someone who did not follow the rules of that crime family has long been used as a reminder to the others that they need to obey the rules under risk of harsh penalty. In all fairness even crime families do not use the death penalty too often. The punishment for breaking the rules usually involved some form of physical pain and/or banishment in a way that would truly stick with the criminal for years to come and teach them to never double cross anyone again.

If we truly have a society where the death penalty is not an option, then the next worst case scenario is life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Let's look at this. Is life in prison really a harsh deterrent?

Well to most of us the answer is yes, but if we remember that not everyone feels the same way about these subjects, we then remember that there are those who don't care about the thought of being in a small room and being fed and looked after everyday. As long as they are still alive, that's OK with them.

Think about this: The typical criminal on death row fights in the legal courts for years in order to postpone the death penalty. Most try to simply have life in prison without the possibility of parole (Even the courts admit that this is a less harsh punishment) and when this occurs The criminal feels they won. Now under what situation would someone take the worst of two punishments? None. Life in prison still allows the criminal to live and feel occasional joy. This is not a harsh punishment to someone who didn't have big plans for their life anyway.

Understand, we are not talking about 10 year olds who get caught taking their friend's comic book without permission. The typical juvenile on death row is there for commiting murder, sometimes multiple murders, during an armed robbery when they were 16-17 years old. I say typical, because these are not the facts for every case.

The fact is that of the average person executed for crime as a juvenile since 1973, the person committed the crime(s) at the age of 17 and was able to hold off the ultimate punishment until they were over 29 years old. They extended their life span over 70% as opposed to being executed within a year of the crime. (statistics taken from This page is no longer available and I haven't been able to find where it moved to.)

I know that the race issue is not as important considering that we are talking about juvenile offenders but just to make things fair, let's look at the facts:
From 1930 to 1998 4,361 people were put to death. Of those, 2,064 were white 2,246 were black and 51 were other races. Now bringing those statistics to more recent years gives us a similar picture so we know nothing has changed too much in recent times (1977-1998 500 killed. 313 were white 180 were black and 7 other another race. Of course most were men.)
(Statistics from This page is no longer available and I haven't been able to find where it moved to.)

Therefore having the most threatening punishments available for crimes committed during this "pre-adult" stage is the most beneficial thing we can do. It is a deterrent. If we take away punishment options, no matter how harsh, then we simply tie our hands.

I must stress again that the death penalty (whether juvenile or not) should be used only under extreme cases. It is never meant to be an option for someone who commits a petty crime. There are other punishments available for those situations. The death penalty has typically been used as a deterrent for one particularly heinous crime: murder. Almost all other crimes should be punished in other ways.

So should the death penalty be an option for juvenile criminals? My answer is yes. The death penalty, when used correctly and in conjunction with other punishments, has proven time and time again to be effective against deterring crime. In fact I submit that if it is taken out as a possible option against juvenile criminals then you will find more crime not less.

Oh and by the way, for those who argue the death penalty issue on the issue of whether it's cheaper to use the death penalty or life imprisonment: WAKE UP!

First off determining the best course of action against criminals shouldn't be treated as a monetary issue. The axiom "You get what you paid for" can not be more truer than in this situation. Sometimes the cheaper option is not the correct one. Remember that.

Thanks again to Neal for requesting this topic. May it open some people minds and encourage rational discussion on difficult topics.

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