U.S. spanks world in juvenile punishment

November 16, 1999|By Tom Teepen

A RECENT event in the U.S. Supreme Court that went virtually unnoticed in this country would have been decried as incomprehensibly inhumane in almost every other nation.

The justices blew off the appeal of a Nevada man sentenced to death for two murders committed when he was 16. His lawyers argued that his execution would violate the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which bars capital punishment for crimes committed before age 18.

The courts indifference was no surprise. The justices ruled 10 years ago that execution for killings by 16-year-olds is constitutionally hunky-dory. In ratifying the 1992 covenant, the Senate, at President George Bushs request, specifically reserved the right to execute the young. The Clinton administration urged the justices to disallow the Nevada appeal.

It is pretty much a settled matter for most Americans that execution for juvenile murder is a good thing. Indeed, if theres anything Americans like better than executing juveniles, it is executing just about anyone else. Were a world leader.

The only other nations that permit death sentences for youths are Iran, Pakistan, Nigeria and Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International says weve executed more youth offenders -- 19 --since 1990 than the rest of the world combined. Seventy are on our death rows.

And when we arent out to kill juvenile murderers, were increasingly tracking young offenders to long prison terms, even lifetimes in prisons, as if they were adults.

The current horror story in point is Michigans prosecution of a 13-year-old for a shooting death committed when he was 11. Nathaniel Abraham potentially faces life imprisonment without parole. He claims the shooting was accidental, the prosecution says calculated, but either way, how is it possible to hold that an 11-year-old has the same degree of responsibility as an adult?

The question is especially apt in the case of Nathaniel, found by the states own psychologist to have had the reasoning ability of a 6-year-old at the time of his arrest.

Michigan lets prosecutors seek judicial approval to try any juvenile as an adult. Forty-six states have adopted laws in recent years permitting some juveniles to be tried and sentenced as adults.

Does it surprise anyone that theres a huge racial disproportion in the results? Black kids are 15 percent of the 10-to-17 population but 50 percent of the kids transferred from juvenile to adult courts.

But black and white, we've got it in for our kids to a degree unmatched in most of the world. Maybe we really have the worlds most dangerous children. Or maybe we just have some of the worlds most violent adults.

Tom Teepen is national correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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