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Jimmy Carter Urges Supreme Court to Halt Juvenile Executions

U.S. should join the world in halting juvenile executions

This op-ed was published in the Oct. 13, 2004, issue of USA Today.

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Roper vs. Simmons, a case about whether the execution of children constitutes cruel and unusual punishment under the U.S. Constitution.

Christopher Simmons was 17 when he and an accomplice murdered a woman while attempting to rob her.

Missouri's high court ruled that Simmons should not be executed because a national consensus has developed against the capital punishment of offenders younger than 18. Missouri appealed the ruling to the US Supreme Court.

I am hopeful our top court will take this opportunity to acknowledge that evolving standards of decency at home and abroad - as well as basic principles of American justice - require the rejection of executing children once and for all.

Opposition to juvenile capital punishment has gained significant momentum in the past few years in the United States.

Federal law and the laws of 31 states now prohibit death sentences for individuals who committed crimes before their 18th birthdays. Just this year, South Dakota and Wyoming banned the juvenile death penalty. This national trend echoes an even more dramatic evolution of international consensus. Almost universally, the peoples and nations of the world have condemned the juvenile death penalty as inhumane.

In the past three years, the only nations known to have executed juveniles are China, Iran and the United States.

Counters basic principles

Citizens and lawmakers in every state have recognized that the juvenile death penalty is inconsistent with the principles of our justice system, which punishes offenders in proportion to their culpability.

Proponents of executing juveniles argue that adolescents are sufficiently responsible for their actions to justify imposing the same sentences as those given to adults.

Medical and scientific experts disagree. Cutting-edge research shows that the parts of the brain associated with impulse control, long-range planning, judgment and a full appreciation of consequences continue to mature throughout adolescence.

Americans have long understood this intuitively. We limit or prohibit teens from driving, smoking, drinking and voting because we know that their capacities for curbing impulsiveness, using sound judgment and exercising self-control are much less developed.

Though these facts in no way minimize the suffering of victims and victims' families, they should influence the sentences juvenile offenders receive.

Global consensus

The elimination of the juvenile death penalty would be a significant step in bringing the US in line with the moral consensus of the global community. The Founders of our great nation celebrated the need for "a decent Respect to the Opinions of Mankind" in our Declaration of Independence. Since the end of World War II, our country has taken the lead in speaking out against human-rights violations elsewhere in the world and has enjoyed respect in world affairs.

The American system of constitutional democracy and guaranteed freedoms has stood as an exemplar in the eyes of people and nations emerging from totalitarian and repressive regimes. The continued policy of executing juveniles detracts profoundly from our credibility as a champion of human rights and, therefore, erodes our ability to influence the behavior of other nations and world leaders.

While almost universal condemnation of the juvenile death penalty has become as well recognized as the global prohibitions against slavery, torture and genocide, in America we have executed more juveniles in the past 15 years than all other countries combined.

For all of these reasons, I joined a "friend of the court" brief to the Supreme Court in this case. Nobel Peace Prize winners, including former Russian president Mikhail Gorbachev, South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Tibetan Dalai Lama all have encouraged the court to reject juvenile capital punishment. I fervently hope the jurists will agree with these esteemed peacemakers.

Our nation is now acknowledging what the rest of the world already knows: Executing juvenile offenders is cruel and inhumane.

Former US president Jimmy Carter chairs The Carter Center, a non-governmental organization based in Atlanta.

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