Public Policy and Children Who Kill Part 2
Governor Andrew Cuomo recently announced the formation of a commission to reform New York State’s archaic criminal and juvenile justice laws. New York and North Carolina are the only two states that charge 16- and 17-year-olds as adults. Last month, 14-year-old Kathon Anderson was charged as an adult after he opened fire on the B15 bus, killing husband and father Angel Rojas.
“It’s time to improve New York’s outdated juvenile justice laws and raise the age at which our children can be tried and charged as adults,” Governor Cuomo said. “It’s not right and it’s not fair.” In 2013, over 33,000 16- and 17-year-olds in New York had their cases handled in adult criminal courts, where they are less likely to receive the services they need.
In his 2014 State of the State Address, the governor proposed establishing the commission to “Raise the Age” and help to ensure young people become productive and successful adults. The Commission on Youth, Public Safety and Justice will review New York’s criminal laws with an eye to make the system fairer and safer for youth and communities.
Nationally, the norm is moving away from harsher sentences for children who kill and toward constitutional protections against cruel and inhumane punishment.
During the past decade, the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) has issued a series of decisions that ban states from automatically sentencing children to the death penalty or life imprisonment without taking into account extenuating circumstances, like family situations and thought processes.
In 2005, the court held that the 8th and 14th Amendments forbid imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under the age of 18 when their crimes were committed. In that case, a 17-year-old Missouri youth planned and committed a capital murder. He was sentenced to death after he turned 18. Since SCOTUS had previously ruled in another case that the 8th Amendment prohibits the execution of a mentally retarded person, that same reasoning was applied to the Missouri youth, whose death sentence was set aside in favor of life imprisonment. Culpability, or the ability to reason clearly and understand the consequences of one’s actions, was argued in both cases against the death penalty.
A Florida 16-year-old committed armed burglary and another crime. Under a plea agreement, the Florida trial court sentenced the youth to probation and withheld adjudication of guilt. The youth went on to violate the terms of his probation by committing additional crimes. His probation was revoked, and the youth was sentenced to life in prison for the burglary. Florida subsequently abolished its parole system, which meant the life sentence left the youth no possibility of release except executive clemency. In 2010, SCOTUS held that the 8th Amendment ban against cruel and unusual punishments does not permit a juvenile offender to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a nonhomicide crime.
In 2012, SCOTUS ruled in a pair of cases from Alabama and Arkansas that the 8th Amendment forbids a sentencing scheme that mandates life in prison without the possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders. In each of the cases, a 14-year-old was convicted of murder and
sentenced to life in prison without possibility of parole for juvenile homicide offenders.
Via this series of decisions, SCOTUS has established that children are constitutionally different from adults for sentencing purposes. Their lack of maturity and underdeveloped sense of responsibility leads to recklessness, impulsivity and heedless risk-taking.
Correction: Part 1 incorrectly stated that brain development does not fully mature until age 15. According to numerous studies, the human brain does not completely mature until age 25.