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Justice for Juveniles

New York Times Editorial

March 2, 2005

With its declaration yesterday that the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment prohibits executing people for crimes they committed before the age of 18, the Supreme Court recognized the need to end an egregious practice that has resulted in the nation's moral isolation.

The 5-to-4 decision, which will free 72 people from death row in 12 states, was a major turnaround for a court that just 16 years ago found no reason to outlaw the execution of those who commit a capital crime at the age of 16 or 17.

Switching sides from his 1989 vote to write yesterday's majority opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy cited "evolving standards of decency," long the touchstone of the court's rulings related to the Eighth Amendment. He said that some 30 states had rejected the death penalty for youthful offenders, and that "the United States now stands alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty."

The decision, which was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, cited the embarrassing fact that since 1990, only seven countries other than the United States had executed people for crimes they had committed as juveniles, and even those seven - Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, China and the Democratic Republic of Congo - now disavowed the practice. While acknowledging the reprehensible nature of many violent crimes committed by juveniles, the majority also cited compelling studies supporting the conclusion that adolescents lack the requisite maturity and mental capacity to justify executing them.

It is disappointing that Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who supported the court's 2002 decision ending the execution of mentally retarded people on similar grounds, declined to join yesterday's majority. Nevertheless, it seems inevitable that one day Americans will look back on this latest narrowing of the categories of people eligible for execution as another intermediate step toward the court's entire rejection of the death penalty. At least that remains our fervent hope.

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