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Children's Voice Article, September/October, 2004

Executive Directions

When the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Roper v. Simmons this summer, it took up a cause begun in the 19th Century but still being fought to ensure justice for children today.

In 1899, authorities in Cook County, Illinois, established a juvenile justice system separate from the adult criminal justice system to divert young offenders from the destructive punishments of criminal courts and encourage rehabilitation based on the individual's needs. Now, more than 100 years later, children as young as 16 or 17, like Christopher Simmons, find themselves on death row for quite serious crimes, leaving us to debate whether children and adults should be treated in exactly the same way.

Over the last several years, 49 states and the District of Columbia have passed laws making it easier for juveniles to be tried as adults through statutory exclusion, mandatory waiver, direct file by prosecutors, or presumptive waiver legislation. Twenty-three states now permit capital punishment for juveniles. These changes came about as lawmakers increasingly focused on the seriousness of crimes, without meaningful examination of the perpetrator's age as a mitigating factor. Lawmakers who stood in the way were labeled soft on crime.

The ethical and moral implications surrounding Roper v. Simmons are compelling, and the arguments cover a lot of territory. The United States is one of only a handful of nations that continue to execute minors, in violation of several international human rights agreements. Moreover, the deterrence effect of the death penalty is unproven and even less likely to motivate teens, who often consider themselves immortal. But one of the most important arguments against executing minors has come from the halls of science, not a law library.

Psychologists have long recognized that children differ from adults in terms of cognitive development, impulse and emotional control, and judgment capability. It's why our nation doesn't allow those under 18 to vote, enter into contracts, drink alcohol, or serve in the military. But in the last few years, research has revealed specific chemical and biological differences between the cognition of a teen and that of an adult.

Doctors at UCLA, for example, have shown that the frontal lobe of the brain--which allows us to prioritize thoughts, anticipate consequences, and control impulses--is the last part of the brain to fully develop, and it undergoes the greatest change during adolescence. Harvard researchers have even shown that underdevelopment of this region makes teens more prone to react using another part of the brain, the amygdala, which is much more instinctual.

This research has led many to conclude that brain development is not complete until the early 20s, meaning the biological age of maturity should be older than 18, and a far cry from 16 or 17--the age at which youth in many states have been subject to the death penalty.

Fortunately, in recent years, some justices have spoken out against executing minors, labeling it a "shameful practice" and a "relic of the past . . . inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society." In 2002, when the Supreme Court handed down a decision on Atkins v. Virginia prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded criminals as cruel and unusual punishment, some thought the justices might also reconsider the treatment of juveniles.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing the majority opinion, noted that although mentally retarded people frequently understand the difference between right and wrong and are competent to stand trial, their intellectual impairments leave them with a decreased capacity to process information, communicate, learn from mistakes, reason logically, control impulses, and understand others' reactions. Sound familiar? Much of the new biological evidence confirms that teenagers' brains are still developing the capacity to make precisely these distinctions.

Christopher Simmons, who was just 17 at the time of his offense, had been both physically and mentally abused by his stepfather, a chronic alcoholic. A psychologist also noted that Simmons had a "longstanding history of abusing alcohol and marijuana, beginning at age 13 . . . and suffered from a schizotypal personality disorder."

His circumstances aren't unique among youth on death row. Add these complications to the host of typical developmental issues, and the odds are clearly stacked against many of these teens, paving the way for an injustice.

There's no question Christopher Simmons committed a terrible crime in 1993, when he and an accomplice tied up a woman and threw her into a river from a railroad trestle after she recognized him during a burglary. His victim's family and friends have every right to demand a severe punishment for the young man who took her life. His background is no excuse for his actions--many teens with tragic upbringings find a way out of their circumstances and turn away from a life of crime and violence.

But in many ways, Christopher Simmons is a victim as well. Let's hope the Supreme Court understands that taking the life of a young person in this case is far from a just solution--in fact, it takes us one step farther away from the civilized society we all want for all our children.

Shay Bilchik


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