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"I think quietly there's a recognition that this is unseemly," says Dieter of the Death Penalty Information Center. "People aren't demanding these ages be raised, but there has been some movement to quietly do just that." Dieter notes that when New York became the most recent state to adopt the death penalty in 1995, it stipulated that offenders had to be at least 18 at the time of their crime to qualify for capital punishment. And in recent years, Florida raised its minimum age to 17 while Montana increased its age to 18. Of the 38 states with the death penalty, 23 have a minimum age of less than 18.
This debate over sentencing teenagers to death will undoubtedly grow louder in the coming weeks. The National Coalition Against the Death Penalty has launched a "Stop Killing Kids" campaign, but capital punishment proponents insist there are no kids in this debate. Dianne Clements, president of Justice for All, a Houston-based victims' rights group, points out that the juvenile courts review each case before shipping the defendant into the adult system.
"The individuals are not juveniles," she says. "They were determined to be adults. The fact that these people are called juveniles by abolitionists is nothing more than an attempt to create an environment that makes these people appear sympathetic, so [the public] will envision some innocent, sweet young child who is being executednot the capital murderer who is being executed."
Streib, the expert on condemned teenagers, believes the ongoing political debate over the juvenile death penalty has become a "symbolic game with a whole bunch of hidden agendas." Only a handful of teenagers receive death sentences each year, he points out; many, many more will die violent deaths on city street corners. Still, the professor insists the issue of juvenile executions is important. "When a government decides to execute one of its child offenders, that makes a huge statement about a government's sense of values," he says.