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Home > Research Articles > Scientifically Speaking, Should Teen Offenders Be Punished as Adults?

AScribe Newswire

Monday, March 31, 2003

BURLINGTON, Vt., March 28 (AScribe Newswire) -- Yesterday in Nevada, one of 17 states with a minimum age of 16 for the death penalty, the state legislature heard testimony and voted to support a bill to ban juvenile death sentences. David Fassler, M.D., clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Vermont College of Medicine, testified regarding the scientifically proven fact that the brains of adolescents function in fundamentally different ways than the brains of adults. Earlier this year, questions surrounding the validity of juvenile death sentences were raised when teenage D.C.-area alleged sniper Lee Boyd "John" Malvo was indicted for murder in Virginia. The scientific argument against punishing teen offenders as adults - similar to the argument that convinced the Supreme Court to ban the death penalty for the mentally retarded - maintains that immature adolescent brains are less able than adult brains to make appropriate decisions and consider the consequences of their behavior.

"The biological and developmental differences between adolescents and adults mean that adolescents think and reason in a different way, and are much more likely to act on impulse without considering the consequences of their actions," said Fassler, who provided testimony before the Nevada Committee on the Judiciary at the request of Nevada Assemblywoman Christina Giunchigliani. "They are also generally more receptive and responsive to intervention and rehabilitation." In his testimony, Fassler reviewed recent research that used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques, as well as data on the effects of brain damage on behavior. Fassler, a trustee of the American Psychiatric Association and member of the Governing Council of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, also explained the policies and positions of both these organizations with respect to juvenile death sentences.

Following the testimony, the committee voted 15 - 0 to support AB 118, the bill that bans executions for crimes committed by juveniles. The full assembly will now consider the bill, with final action expected in the coming weeks.

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the United States and Iran are the only countries in the world that formally allow the execution of juvenile offenders. In the United States alone, 21 juvenile offenders have been executed since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976; three of them in the last year. Of the 38 states that currently allow the death penalty, 22 including Nevada permit the execution of juvenile offenders, but 17 - including Nevada - have passed legislation to ban juvenile executions.

"The fact that the brains of adolescents function in fundamentally different ways than the brains of adults is recognized in law when we establish minimum ages for the exercise of such rights and responsibilities as voting, getting married or entering military service," said Fassler. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the ABA also testified in support of the proposed legislation in Nevada yesterday. Other states introducing legislation to ban juvenile death sentences include Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Pennsylvania and South Dakota. For more information about the juvenile death penalty, go to: http://www.abanet.org/crimjust/juvjus/factsheet_general.pdf

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