Diminishing death row

People under the age of 18 aren’t allowed to vote, to join the military or enter into contracts, presumably because they are too immature, in general, to be trusted to make good decisions. So it makes sense that the U.S. Supreme Court decided last week that they should not be executed, either. It’s in keeping with what we know of the adolescent mind—that’s it’s not yet fully formed and often lacks impulse control and awareness of consequences—and with international opinion, which abhors the execution of children.

The decision categorizing the execution of juveniles as cruel and unusual punishment and thus unconstitutional comes just three years after a similar ruling regarding the mentally retarded. In addition, the advent of DNA testing and its revelation that hundreds of men sitting on death rows around the nation were not actually guilty have made people much more aware of the fallibility of the justice system. The idea that we might be executing the innocent as well as the guilty necessarily gives us pause. It’s now clear that this is a watershed moment in the history of the death penalty.

Whether this will lead to greater understanding of the other flaws in the system remains to be seen. Numerous studies have shown that the death penalty is not applied evenly or equally. If you’re a white person charged with murder and able to afford a good lawyer, chances are you won’t face the death penalty. If your skin is dark and you’re dependent on an overworked, underpaid public defender, the odds against you go way up.

It does no good to society if, in our desire to see that murderers receive justice, we commit injustices in the process. It’s time to abolish the death penalty altogether.