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Teen-Age Rights and Responsibility

THERE is an underlying thread tying together some of the major legal issues of the day. It is children's rights. This particularly surfaces in a United States Supreme Court ruling dealing with the death penalty for teen-agers and in cases due to be brought before the high court in the fall on abortions for minors.

At stake is how the law views criminal penalties for those under the age of 18. The social theory is that children and young adults have not fully developed mature judgment and ethical responsibility and must be more carefully supervised - and guided - by those older and wiser than they are. This would include lesser penalties for crimes committed by young people than are meted out to their adult counterparts.

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The prohibition in many states against executing youngsters who commit heinous crimes takes this reasoning into account. If there is a single group of felons who perhaps have the best opportunity to be reformed - remolded by society - it is the young.

The rising number of violent crimes committed by youth, often drug-related, has hardened society toward tougher punishment. And public outrage has perhaps prodded the courts into allowing states to impose the death penalty on 16- and 17-year-old murderers - but holding the line on convicted killers of a younger age.

And yet even rulings in cases from Kentucky and Missouri divided Supreme Court justices on a 5 to 4 split.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that while only 25 states of the 37 that permit capital punishment allow it for those under 18, there is no ``national consensus'' that constitutionally bars execution of a 16-year-old under the Eighth Amendment's proscription against ``cruel and unusual punishments.'' The convicted murderers in the cases considered now are both over 20.

Justice Scalia's rationale is that public views are best reflected by laws passed by ``society's elected representatives.''

Hence, the states' death penalty laws constitute the public will. Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - who also voted to permit capital punishment for 16-year-olds - allowed that the day may come when there is general legislative rejection of the death penalty, but she said that she did not believe that day has come.

In a strong dissent, Associate Justice William J. Brennan Jr. accused the court of allowing ``political majorities'' (legislatures)to ``define the contours of Eighth Amendment protection.''

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``The very purpose of the Bill of Rights,'' he said, ``was to withdraw certain subjects from the vicissitudes of political controversy, to place them beyond the reach of majorities.''

The Scalia reasoning is likely to prevail again in a pair of teen-age abortion cases, from Minnesota and Ohio, scheduled to go before the Supreme Court next term. These states are among 26 that require notice to one or both parents or parental consent for a teen-ager to legally have an abortion.

These abortion tests come in the wake of a recent ruling upholding tight restrictions on abortion in a Missouri law that had previously been struck down in the federal courts. The Missouri case did not specifically deal with teen-age abortion. Anti-abortion advocates, however, see it as a basis on which to bring these new cases regarding youth pregnancies. Abortion for teen-agers without parental consent or notification, they say, is unacceptable to many who may also believe that adult abortions are constitutionally allowable.

Intrinsic to this debate is whether pregnant teen-agers are mature enough to decide whether or not to have an abortion.

The implication in notice laws is that they are not. Some state statutes have raised the issue of judicial bypass - under which a judge could permit an abortion in situations where no responsible parent was available. The court has yet to finally adjudicate this aspect of the law.

Those who favor ``choice'' for teen-agers, as well as adults, are concerned that burdensome laws will force underage mothers-to-be to bear babies they are ill-prepared to care for.

Anti-abortion advocates insist, however, that legal obstacles to abortion will cause teens to take greater precautions against pregnancy or abstain from sex.

These are social considerations - and are not resolved in courtrooms. They are addressed by families and supportive adults.

In an ideal world, there would be no teen-age murderers facing societal judgments about whether they should live or die. And there would be no pregnant young girls who have no means of caring for or supporting a baby.

The world is not ideal; neither are the courts or the legal process, but both should be compassionate about the problems of youth and seek opportunities to solve them.

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