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Government News
APA, AACAP Advocate for Ban On Executing Juveniles
Psychiatric News
Volume 39 Number 6 page 8-83

With the help of scientifically solid testimony from APA and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, bills to prevent the execution of individuals for crimes committed as juveniles have made progress in three states: On February 19, the New Hampshire Senate voted to raise the minimum age for execution from 17 to 18. A few days later the South Dakota House narrowly passed a bill to bar the execution of those younger than age 18 at the time of a crime. The state Senate had already passed identical legislation, and the bill is expected to become law. And on February 27, a bill to raise the minimum death-penalty age from 16 to 18 passed the Wyoming Senate by wide a margin. As the legislation has already passed the House, it has now been forwarded to the governor for his signature.

What legislators are learning is that adolescents’ brains function differently from those of adults and are still developing during the teen years. These brain-development differences affect behavior, judgment, impulse control, and decision-making ability. As a result of these differences between adult and still-maturing brains, even when juveniles commit heinous crimes, the state should not execute them, APA and AACAP contend.

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David Fassler, M.D.: "Adolescents actually use their brains differently from adults when reasoning or solving problems."

"Research studies have indicated that adolescence is actually a very active time of growth and development at the physical level of the brain. Specifically, what we see is a rapid increase in the interconnections between the brain cells," explained David Fassler, M.D., in testimony before the New Hampshire legislature on behalf of APA and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on February 9.

Fassler is a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Burlington, Vt., and an APA trustee-at-large.

His testimony described how imaging studies have shown that "adolescents actually use their brains differently from adults when reasoning or solving problems. For example, they tend to rely more on these instinctual structures, like the amygdala, and less on the more advanced areas, like the frontal lobes, which are associated with more goal-oriented and rational thinking."

What biological evidence now demonstrates, Fassler told the lawmakers, is that in children and adolescents, behavior patterns as well as cognitive and neurological development are still in the formative stages. This means that adolescents "are much more likely to act on impulse, without considering the consequences of their actions, and they are generally more receptive and responsive to intervention and rehabilitation."

"As a society, we have broadly recognized this fact, and as a result we’ve established separate laws, courts, and programs for juveniles who commit crimes."

Also testifying in favor of barring execution of those who committed crimes as juveniles was psychiatrist Daniel Jackson, M.D., medical director of the Adolescent Service at Arbour Hospital in Boston and an officer of the New England Council of Child Psychiatry. He too cited the increasing sophisticated knowledge that researchers have produced about brain development and urged the legislators not to view adolescents "as just reduced versions of adults."

"Very similar to mentally retarded individuals, adolescents have a varied capacity to understand and process information," he stated. "Their communication skills are limited. Some don’t abstract from mistakes to learn from experience. Logic is faulty. They are frequently impulsive and are not yet able to understand the reactions of others.

"The sizable differences that might occur in the degree of frontal-lobe development between ages 17 and 18 further support the necessity," Jackson said, of limiting the possibility of execution to those who committed crimes at age 18 or older.

Fassler concluded his testimony by emphasizing that the legislature was presented with an opportunity "to make a statement that the citizens of New Hampshire will not execute people for crimes committed as adolescents." He stated his hope that before voting on the issue, lawmakers could put aside their emotions on this sensitive topic and "look at the scientific research" showing how different adolescents are from adults.

Last month Fassler offered similar testimony in Wyoming, where he was joined by Deborah Robinett, D.O., treasurer and legislative representative of the Wyoming Psychiatric Association. Following their presentation, the House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to support the proposed legislation, paving the way for eventual passage.

Later this year, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in a case challenging the constitutionality of executing those who were younger than age 18 when they committed their crimes. That case, Donald P. Roper v. Christopher Simmons, is an appeal on a case in which the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Simmons’ death sentence, finding that executing a 17-year-old violated the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment.

In the 2002 Atkins v. Virginia case, the Court ruled that executing mentally retarded individuals was a violation of the Constitution’s ban against "cruel and unusual punishment."

More information on these bills and juveniles and the death penalty is posted at the Web site of the Death Penalty Information Center at www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/article.php?did=205&scid=27.

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David Fassler, M.D.: "Adolescents actually use their brains differently from adults when reasoning or solving problems."

"Research studies have indicated that adolescence is actually a very active time of growth and development at the physical level of the brain. Specifically, what we see is a rapid increase in the interconnections between the brain cells," explained David Fassler, M.D., in testimony before the New Hampshire legislature on behalf of APA and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry on February 9.

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