If Lee Boyd Malvo is convicted in the Washington, D.C., sniper cases, the debate over the death penalty for juveniles will intensify. Malvo was 17 when the shootings occurred a year ago.
The New York Times writes that arguments over whether to execute young offenders have traditionally rested on legal and societal grounds, but scientists have joined the debate. An increasing number of studies, the Times says, show that the brain develops through late adolescence, as do crucial mental functions like planning, judgment, and emotional control.
In a paper in the December issue of the American Psychologist, Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg argues that young offenders should be viewed under the law as less guilty than adults. Scientific evidence supports a legal approach “under which most youths are dealt with in a separate justice system and none are eligible for capital punishment,” wrote Steinberg and Elizabeth S. Scott, of the University of Virginia School of Law.
Twenty-one states allow the death penalty for offenders who committed crimes as juveniles. In 16 states, including Virginia, 16 is the minimum age at which offenders are eligible for execution; 5 states set the minimum age at 17. In August, the Missouri Supreme Court found the death penalty unconstitutional for offenders under 18.
Not everyone agrees that the young offenders should be spared the harshest punishment. Robert Blecker, a professor of criminal law at New York Law School, said he would “almost never” favor execution for juvenile crimes, “but almost never is not never. The bottom line for me is that in very rare instances it seems to me that juveniles can demonstrate a viciousness and callousness, a cruelty by which they can deserve to die.”
The Times then recounts a conversation with Temple’s Steinberg arguing that “the evidence for adolescents’ social and biological immaturity should inform society’s response to their crimes.”