Testimony of Michael Bochenek,
Counsel, Children's Rights Division, Human Rights Watch,
in support of H.B. 2048,
Texas House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee
April 17, 2001
On behalf of Human Rights Watch, I urge the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to report favorably on H.B. 2048, which would raise the minimum age for capital punishment to eighteen.
A majority of states have recognized that putting people to death for crimes they committed as children is contrary to our evolving standards of decency. Of the thirty-eight states that retain the death penalty, twenty-three permit its imposition on juvenile offenders. Of those twenty-three states, only sixteen have juvenile offenders on their death rows. And of those sixteen states, only seven have actually carried out executions of child offenders since the death penalty was reinstated in 1976.
In Arizona, Florida, Indiana, and several other states that now permit the execution of juvenile offenders, legislatures are considering measures that would restrict the death penalty to adult offenders. The Montana legislature passed such a measure in 1999. Similarly, juvenile offenders charged with federal crimes may not be sentenced to death, with the narrow exception of those charged in U.S. military courts.
Nationally, the number of juvenile death sentences has fallen in recent years. In 1994, seventeen juvenile offenders were sentenced to death. Eleven received death sentences in 1998. Nine juvenile offenders were given sentences of death in 1999, and last year, the death sentence was imposed on six persons for crimes they were found to have committed as children. Juvenile death sentences constituted only 2 percent of all death sentences handed down last year.
Around the world, even in societies with harsh criminal justice systems, the law acknowledges the immorality and injustice of imposing death-a uniquely irreversible punishment-for crimes committed by children. Congo, Iran, Nigeria, and Saudi Arabia are the only other countries that are known to defy a worldwide consensus that the death penalty should not be imposed for crimes undertaken as juveniles.
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the United States is a party, expressly forbids capital punishment for offenders under the age of eighteen at the time of the offense for which they were convicted. Although the United States purports to reserve the right to impose capital punishment on juvenile offenders, the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the treaty body charged with interpreting the covenant, has concluded that the United States' reservation is incompatible with the object and purpose of the treaty and therefore void as a matter of international law.
Abolishing the death penalty for juvenile offenders would not excuse them of criminal responsibility. Those who are convicted can be sentenced to imprisonment for life. Life imprisonment is sufficient to express society's outrage at horrible crimes, hold offenders accountable, and protect society from futher violence.
Support for the death penalty is premised on the blameworthiness of offenders, based on a consideration of their background, character, and motivation and the circumstances of their crimes.
Adolescents simply cannot meet that standard of blameworthiness. As the Supreme Court recognized when it struck down the death penalty for fifteen-year-olds in 1988, "The reasons why juveniles are not trusted with the privileges and responsibilities of an adult also explain why their irresponsible conduct is not as morally reprehensible as that of any adult."
The international standard forbidding the execution of juvenile offenders reflects the reality that children are different from adults; that they lack the experience, judgment, maturity, and restraint of an adult; and that with help even the most errant may be rehabilitated.
Human Rights Watch urges the House Criminal Jurisprudence Committee to uphold this basic principle of morality and justice by issuing a favorable report on H.B. 2048.