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APA calls for limiting death penalty to offenders age 21 and older

August 5th, 2022
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

The American Psychological Association has called upon U.S. courts, Congress and state legislatures to ban the application of death as a penalty to anyone younger than 21, citing scientific research showing adolescents' brains are still developing.

APA's governing Council of Representatives voted on 161–7, with 1 abstention, on Wednesday to limit application of the death penalty based on scientific research indicating that adolescent brains continue to develop well beyond age 18 (the current constitutional limit), and that people's ability to exert good judgment in times of heightened arousal is not realized fully until sometime after the age of 20. The council was meeting in Minneapolis to coincide with APA2022, the association's annual convention.

"There is clear evidence of prolonged development far beyond the age of 17 and into the mid-20s, so that the psychological capacity of members of the late adolescent class to exercise a mature sense of responsibility, and to resist outside pressures is still very much in process," according to the "Resolution on the Imposition of Death as a Penalty for Persons Aged 18 Through 20, Also Known as the Late Adolescent Class." "The significant structural and functional changes in the brain at this time corroborate these findings."

The resolution notes that there are more than 3,000 laws and government regulations restricting the behavior and actions of people under age 21 in the United States, such as being legally permitted to buy alcohol or tobacco, obtaining a license for a concealed handgun, becoming a foster parent or obtaining a credit card without a co-signer.

"Much of this restrictive legislation and regulations consider the issues of decision-making in highly stressful and extremely arousing circumstances (sometimes referred to as issues of decision-making during hot-versus-cold cognition)," the resolution states, "but other laws appropriately grant increasing rights to this age group when evaluating the maturity required to make careful/considered choices such as about personal health care, voting, and other matters that need not to be made, and typically are not made, rashly in emotionally volatile circumstances as are the criminal actions that make such youth currently eligible for death as a penalty."

It also notes that the U.S. Supreme Court has historically emphasized that death as a penalty should be reserved for those people who have committed the very worst crimes and who have the very highest level of culpability. In addition, it cites research indicating that death as a penalty has not been applied equitably to late adolescents, including the fact that Black adolescents tend to be punished more harshly than whites and are often perceived to be older than they are.

"In combination, these factors render the application of the death penalty to members of the late adolescent class inherently more unreliable and morally abhorrent in a developed society that is concerned with equality, generally and specifically, in legal justice for all," the resolution states.

APA has a policy dating to 2001 that calls on each U.S. jurisdiction that imposes capital punishment to refrain from carrying out the death penalty until it implements policies and procedures that have been shown through research to ameliorate deficiencies including prosecutor bias based on race/ethnicity. APA also has a policy that opposes executing defendants with severe mental disorders or impairment.

More information:
Resolution on the Imposition of Death as a Penalty for Persons Aged 18 Through 20, Also Known As the Late Adolescent Class: … on-death-penalty.pdf

Provided by American Psychological Association

Citation: APA calls for limiting death penalty to offenders age 21 and older (2022, August 5) retrieved 20 March 2023 from
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