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Waiting for Roper v. Simmons | The Nation

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Waiting for Roper v. Simmons

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This forum was published on January 23, 2005, in anticipation of the decision in Roper v. Simmons, which was announced on March 1 and which abolished the death penalty for juvenile offenders in the US.

nti-death penalty activists often frame the debate over juvenile executions broadly, focusing not just on the minimum age but also on a number of other socioeconomic factors. Do you think the juvenile death-penalty issue speaks to more extensive social problems?

About the Author

Patrick Mulvaney
Patrick Mulvaney is a Reprieve Fellow and Staff Attorney at the Southern Center for Human Rights in Atlanta. His work...

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Williams

: Yes. In Texas the last six juvenile offenders executed were people of color. Our judicial system is racist and discriminatory. Black men make up almost 50 percent of America's prison population. Is that because of a cycle of violence or racism? The answer is both. With so many black men incarcerated, many black children and other young people of color grow up poor and in single-parent households. And those social hurdles are showcased in our courtrooms. Rich people don't get the death penalty. Justice is about how much a person can afford! That's why so many people of color are in America's prisons and being executed, especially kids.

Pelke

: The juvenile death penalty is a sign that we have given up on our young people. It highlights the fact that our system operates with the philosophy that we must react to violence with more violence. And it also reflects a broader set of problems: It highlights the fact that we have a legal system that is discriminatory with regard to race and class, a system in which there is justice only for some.

Rust-Tierney

: States are increasing spending on prison systems even as they cut spending on public education. Moreover, public education spending is uneven; just look at the amount of money spent per child in affluent school districts compared with the amount spent in less affluent ones. At the same time, the kids who fail--who we fail--in poorer school districts are more likely to end up somewhere in the criminal justice system, be it on parole or probation, incarcerated or even on death row. So there is a link between how we support our children in their formative years and what ends up happening to them later. The cycle of violence begins with the onset of poverty, and economic and educational deprivation.

Presson

: I believe the juvenile death penalty, especially in the South, speaks to society's knee-jerk reaction to violent crime and desire to extract revenge. Moreover, it speaks to society's schizophrenic attitude toward juveniles: We enact more and more legal protections for them--like limiting driving privileges, enforcing anti-tobacco legislation and making parents criminally liable for their children's truancy--but at the same time, when it comes to violent crime, we hold juveniles accountable as adults.

What do you think Roper v. Simmons means for the future of the anti-death penalty movement?

Williams

: If the Supreme Court rules against the execution of juvenile offenders, the problem with the death penalty itself will largely remain. Poor people will still have poor representation. Blacks will still get executed at a higher rate than whites. Prosecutors and judges will still hold ex parte meetings to decide who will face the death penalty. And how many will be executed? How many more families will be a part of the cycle? How many more innocent people will be killed? One can hope a victory in Roper v. Simmons would put a spark into the anti-death penalty movement. I guess time will tell. But during that time executions will still proceed. In fact, one will soon happen yet again right here in Texas.

Pelke

: When I became convinced that executing juveniles was wrong, it was not that big of a step to conclude that executing anyone was wrong. If the Supreme Court makes the correct ruling in Roper v. Simmons, I think the American public will eventually make the same step I made. I think when people really look at this issue and study it, they will come to believe that as a civilized society we can do better than killing our children. But if we cannot convince the Supreme Court and the American people that the juvenile death penalty is wrong, then the abolition movement is in deep trouble.

Rust-Tierney

: A victory in this case would signify the Supreme Court's acknowledgment that the American public does not want the death penalty applied broadly. The public doesn't want it applied for people with mental retardation, doesn't want it applied for adolescent offenders. So I think we're seeing a scaling back of the death penalty in this country. Hopefully this will continue with the Court's ruling in Roper v. Simmons.

Presson

: It is sad that the Supreme Court did not take up this issue until Missouri's highest court based its decision in Simmons's case on the US Constitution. It is sad because at the time Scott Hain was executed by the state of Oklahoma in 2003, we had essentially the same data and arguments Simmons has, but the Supreme Court turned away our challenge and allowed Hain to be killed. If the Supreme Court rules in Simmons's favor, it would only remove a very small segment of offenders from death eligibility. But it would be another step on the road toward abolition. If the Supreme Court rules against Simmons, it would be a signal that the Court very much favors capital punishment, wishes to ignore the social trends and the science that favor Simmons's position and wants to send a message to the states that they are free to execute almost anyone they wish. That would be a setback to the abolition movement.

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