November 10, 2003

Discussing Youth Criminalization

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Although Friday’s symposium, “Rethinking the Criminalization of Youth,” was mainly geared toward students, first-grade teacher Randi Beckman was one of the individuals who listened intently to the slew of experts who spoke about the treatment and use of the death penalty for juvenile criminals.

“I have children from very difficult and trying backgrounds who are put in a cycle of violence,” Beckman said. “Each of the speakers is so knowledgeable about their areas.”

Beckman, who helps organize violence prevention programs at the Belle Sherman School in Ithaca, was just one of the many who attended talks during the full-day symposium which featured former Attorney General Janet Reno ’60, a Frank H.T. Rhodes Class of ’56 Professor, who gave closing comments after the lectures and speeches.

The presentation of the juvenile criminalization issue and the use of the death penalty is especially timely in light of the trial beginning today for teenager Lee Boyd Malvo, one of the alleged Beltway snipers.

Morning Session

In the morning session, Provost Biddy (Carolyn A.) Martin gave opening comments about the symposium and an introduction of Reno to the Barnes Hall audience. During her speech, Martin encouraged students to “seize this opportunity to disagree” and said that the forum’s purpose was “specifically to include and involve undergrads.”

She also quipped in her introduction of the Rhodes professor that the fact that Reno was a chemistry major during her undergraduate days was an “achievement not only for a woman, but for everyone.”

“She is a role model we all need to follow,” Martin said.

The event kicked off with a lecture entitled “Less Guilty by Reason of Adolescence” by Prof. Laurence Steinberg of Temple University. At the beginning of his lecture, Steinberg examined three previous “zero-tolerance stories” in which under-18 children were heavily punished by the law for acts they committed.

Throughout his talk, Steinberg examined the question of whether adolescents are different from adults, and if so, if they should get different treatment by the law. Steinberg said during his lecture that children are not as psychologically developed as adults and used scientific studies focusing on adolescent risk-taking and decision-making to back his point.

“We are living in a harsh world,” he said. “We’re turning normative adolescent behavior into crimes.”

Even though Steinberg feels that adolescents should get lighter treatment, he also said that they are still responsible and “know what’s right from wrong.” Still, Steinberg said that their youth should be a major factor in the consideration of punishment.

“Today we are caught up in a craze where we forgot that kids are kids and sometimes they do dumb things,” he said.

Following the lecture was a panel discussion entitled “The Treatment of Violent Youth.” The participants, who had 15 minutes each to speak, included Prof. Steven A. Drizin, law, Northwestern University; Prof. Jeffrey Fagan, law, Columbia University; and David Kaczynski of New Yorkers Against the Death Penalty, the brother of Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski. Giving the closing remarks was Prof. James Garbarino ’73, social work, Boston College, formerly a Cornell professor.

Each speaker had a different slant toward the issue. Drizin focused on the encounters and the interrogation methods that police use on adolescents. Fagan centered his discussion on whether arrested under-18 criminals stay out of trouble when they come out of prison, while Kaczynski talked about his experience working with troubled kids in a youth shelter.

All three speakers presented evidence which implied that having the law treat adolescents like adults had extremely negative consequences on their lives and futures. Garbarino, in his closing, said that while there is much evidence to support the major difference between juveniles and adults, “we need to understand the intellectual value of compassion.”

“This forum would be a meaningless structure in other countries,” Garbarino said.

Afternoon Session

In the afternoon, the discussion moved to a packed Myron Taylor Hall G90. Prof. John Siliciano ’75, interim Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Law School, gave the opening remarks and cited the juvenile death penalty as “a shameful practice.”

“It is the ultimate injustice that could result from criminal youth,” Siliciano said.

He then went on to introduce Prof. Victor L. Streib, law, Ohio Northern University. Streib is also the author of Death Penalty for Juveniles, a book which examines the history of the juvenile death penalty.

In his lecture, “The History of the Juvenile Death Penalty,” Streib reviewed cases ranging from 1642, when a 16-year-old boy received the death penalty for bestiality, to more recent cases. Streib said that although there are currently 73 individuals on death row who were charged when they were juveniles, he found that this trend is dipping in many states.

“States are moving towards raising the minimum ages [for the death penalty] even if they could make it lower,” Streib said.

In addition, Streib said that four of the nine Supreme Court justices want to revisit the guidelines toward the juvenile death penalty, raising the possibility that the practice will end in the only country in the world which uses it. Streib also emphasized that even though the Malvo crimes were horrible, “there [have been] other horrible crimes.”

“I’m not saying he is not guilty,” Streib said. “[But] if mitigation matters, then he shouldn’t get the death penalty.”

To specifically discuss capital punishment for adolescents, panel members Prof. Steve Clymer ’80, law; Prof. Robert Blecker, law, New York Law School; Prof. Muna Ndulo, law; Prof. John Blume, law; and Stephen Harper, director of the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative, all gave their different views.

Although Ndulo concluded that the United States does not follow international norms concerning the issue and Blume and Harper both stated their discontent with the juvenile death penalty, Blecker and Clymer both presented the other side of the issue.

While Clymer spoke about the approaches that a prosecutor might make regarding a juvenile death penalty case, Blecker, through his numerous experiences with street criminals, claimed that rather than feeling bad about their crimes, they regret being caught.

“Some should die,” Blecker said. “Our young killer seems both free and determined.”

Reno Speaks

Most of the audience stayed for Reno’s final summary, a speech which touched upon her experience in reviewing applications for individuals on death row. Reno said that while she looked at applications, she saw “points when you could’ve intervened.”

Reno asked many questions, challenging the audience to think about American society and whether the next generation can reverse the shift toward harsh juvenile punishment and “exhibit compassion.”

“To put [juveniles] to death on an unjust playing field is wrong,” Reno said. “Adolescence is the most difficult time in [one’s] life, and we have to understand that.”

Archived article by Brian Tsao