On Monday, February 5, 2018 the American Bar Association House of Delegates overwhelmingly passed a Resolution submitted by our Project and co-sponsored by the Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. Through this Resolution, the ABA urges each jurisdiction that imposes capital punishment to prohibit the imposition of a death sentence on or execution of any individual who was 21 years old or younger at the time of the offense.
The resolution proposes to extend the categorical bar on the death penalty for juveniles under the age of 18 decided by the Supreme Court in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons to those aged 21 or younger. In Roper, the Court said that juveniles’ vulnerability, comparative lack of control, and susceptibility to immature behavior makes them less culpable than adults. In the years since Roper, research has consistently shown that brain development actually continues beyond the age of 18, and that individuals aged 18 or 21 are more similar to juveniles under the age of 18 than to adults. Similarly to juveniles under 18, late adolescents show a lack of maturity and under-developed decision-making process, increased susceptibility to negative influences, emotional states, and social pressure and a highly fluid and mutable character.
Legal and societal developments reflect this increased understanding of late adolescents’ brain development. Indeed, since 2005, many states have been expanding the protections of the juvenile criminal justice and child welfare systems to cover individuals under 21. For example, 45 states allow youth up to the age of 21 to remain under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system. Both the child welfare and education systems in states across the country now extend their services to individuals through age 21.
While the ABA does not support or oppose the death penalty in principle, it has adopted and promotes numerous policies and protocols in order to promote fairness and accuracy in death penalty systems. In particular, the ABA opposes the death penalty for certain categories of individuals, who, because of their unique vulnerabilities, are not among the most culpable offenders for whom the death penalty must be reserved. This policy makes clear our recognition that individuals in late adolescence, in light of their ongoing neurological development, have a diminished culpability and therefore should not be subject to capital punishment.