For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:11

What price do children pay when their aren’t any rules? What price do their victims pay when the children don’t obey the rules? How many military families spend adequate time checking on their kids, giving them good structure and ensuring they are accountable for their actions? Raising children is tough, and raising them in households with parents who are service-members or police is very tough, because they are gone long hours. What price does the parent pay, the victim pay and the child pay. What price?

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In the United States Court System children as young as 13 face a judge and jury that make decisions on whether they will get an early release, go free or spend the rest of their lives in prison. Throughout the world a global consensus holds that children cannot be held to the same responsibilities that adults are held to.  However, no one can agree to the age of responsibility that children must be held to and this makes sentencing problematic, for every culture has varying standards on what determines when a child is an adult, and has different laws their society must follow in comparison to the United States. On the subject of juveniles, there are many cultural and religious disagreements on when a child becomes responsible and becomes accountable for his or her actions. In Jewish custom it occurs when a boy turns 13 years of age, the Baha’i faith has it at 15, Scandinavian countries it is 18, for China it is 20, Latin America it is 15, and in the United States it is when a child reaches the age of 16. Girls have a ‘Sweet 16’ party in America, while sex with a girl of 16 is legal in England, boys and girls can legally drive a vehicle in our country. A person in the States is considered an adult at 21 years of age. But, the court system in America at times, may regard a juvenile as an adult for various reasons.

Quite simply, there are no standards for judging delinquency and in many countries there isn’t even a juvenile justice program for troubled youths. What standard should be followed? Many children who immigrate here must adjust to the rigors of our society; in the case of youths born afar and raised with their own rules, unfamiliarity and deviation with our own United States laws gains little sympathy. There are rules no matter where you go. The public cost for incarcerating children is a huge consideration when determining the type of response given for a crime, the public rarely opposes measures that don’t appear tough on crime, yet there are many financial incentives too for local governments to place juveniles in community based programs rather than inside secure facilities. Policy preferences and social values play a lot into this issue of juvenile justice and makes the problem  complex. Courts continually examine this thorny issue. The United States Juvenile Court System continues to wrangle with defining maturity and responsibility and will likely continue to do so while knowing that no one will ever fully agree with the decision. But does this sit well with the accused or the convicted who barely age into their teens?

The issue of juvenile justice was visited in the case of  Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005), where the Supreme Court of the United States questioned whether under the Eight and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution whether it was permissible to execute a juvenile offender who was older than 15 but younger than 18 when he committed a capital crime. For an adult committing the same crime of murder seems straight forward enough; the adult generally has a direct path through the funnel of the justice system; the crime is committed, a court process is followed, the sentencing is given, the institution of incarceration for the transfer is set. However, this is not the straight forward case with juvenile justice for they sometimes must navigate through various courts and court opinions regarding their standing. Simmons, a youth of 17, found himself going through the State and Federal Courts, all of their appellate reviews, and eventually ended up with his case in the Supreme Court. This was not the first time a capital murder case was looked at in the history of juvenile justice but so it is important to have a background on the Simmons youth to understand the direction the court went.

In 1993, in Fenton Missouri, Christopher Simmons at the age of 17, brought two of his friends into a plan to break into the home of a woman named Shirley Crook, murder her and then burglarize the premises. Simmons, Charles Benjamin 15, and John Tessmer 16, decided to break and enter into Crook’s property but Tessmer dropped out of the plot. Simmons and Benjamin went through with their scheme and on the early morning of September 8th, 1993 Crook awoke to sounds in her house at 2:00 a.m. They bound her with duct tape around the entirety of her face and tied her hands and feet with electrical cord. At a Missouri state park she was thrown alive over a bridge and into the Meramec River, where she drowned. The next morning local fishermen discovered her body. Simmons and Benjamin were easy to find by the Police and the crime was easy to solve. Simmons bragged to his classmates up until the time he was apprehended at high school that he killed her. Both youths wrongly believed they would get away with it. Simmons had told his peers they would never be found guilty because they were minors. Simmons waived his Miranda Rights and after two hours of interrogation admitted to the crime and to premeditation. Simmons followed his confession of the murder by performing a videotaped reenactment at the crime-scene and this sealed his fate in court. The evidence in the case against Simmons was substantial once it was brought to trial. Tessmer, the youth who did not participate in the inhuman murder, gave testimony against Simmons.

The State of Missouri charged Simmons with burglary, kidnapping, stealing and murder in the first degree.  Simmons was 17 at the time of the crime and this put him outside the criminal jurisdiction of Missouri’s juvenile court system. Children as young as 12 can be tried in adult court (certified as adults). There were no rehabilitative services available to Simmons. Simmons was not allowed a ‘blended’ sentence of serving time in a juvenile facility before he was transferred to an adult prison named Roper; this could have made his transition more bearable. A judge can decide what sanctions are available to juvenile offenders such as detention, probation, community service or counseling. Even in the case of murder a juvenile might have had placement, counseling, or rehabilitation of some sort as options available to him and the sentencing guidelines would be less restrictive. In Simmons case he was tried as an adult. Not only did he merit being an adult on the scale but kidnapping and murder in Missouri are Class A felonies. Burglary and Stealing are Class B. The crime of kidnapping is very complex, and must fall into various purposes before a sentence is given; is it kidnapping for ransom, for use as a hostage or shield, to facilitate commission of a felony or to interfere with the government? The varying offenses meant the defendant faced serious charges (up to life in prison). The penalty for first degree murder for a person under sixteen years of age is not to receive the death penalty. The Missouri statute on this states,

Murder in the first degree is a class A felony, and the punishment shall be either death or imprisonment for life without eligibility for probation or parole, or release except by act of the governor; except that, if a person has not reached his sixteenth birthday at the time of the commission of the crime, the punishment shall be imprisonment for life without eligibility for probation or parole, or release except by act of the governor.”(Moga, 2014).

For Simmons, the charges were all very grave for him. During the sentencing hearing, the State presented factors highlighting the brutality of the crime. Simmons counsel argued he had no prior convictions, lacked loving family members, and he wasn’t old enough to accept responsibilities. Surely the court could understand that juveniles of that age weren’t responsible enough to vote, to drink, to serve in the military or to drive responsibly without an adult present. The jury felt differently and returned a guilty verdict. They recommended the death sentence which was imposed by the judge and lethal injection was recommended. Simmons case did not end there at the State level. It would move through various federal courts for post conviction relief where it would be rejected. His case moved up the court system with each court upholding the death sentence.

Though  Simmons crime was horrible, his counsel asked the jury not to give him the death penalty because of his age. Simmons did not have previous convictions. The local court and the Missouri Supreme Court upheld his conviction. This would change for him in 2003 because the U.S. Supreme Court decided it was unconstitutional to give the death penalty to the mentally retarded in the Atkins v Virginia case. This case would give Simmons the opening he needed to get away from the death penalty. Current research, at that time, on adolescent brain development didn’t state clearly what juveniles would or would not do, however, some studies showed that juveniles were not able to take full responsibility for many of their decisions. The Atkins v Virginia case allowed the Missouri Supreme Court to revisit Simmons case because “a national consensus has developed against the execution of juvenile offenders”. Simmons was spared death by lethal injection for a moment and in 2005 he would be sentenced to life in prison without parole. This occurred because the Missouri Supreme Court followed the decision made by the U.S. Supreme Court. On March 1, 2005, The U.S. Supreme Court decided that capital punishment for people who commit a crime before the age of 18 went against the Eighth Amendment, which bans cruel and unusual punishment and by a vote of 5-4 it was decided the death penalty for juvenile criminals is unconstitutional.

The judicial decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on this case doesn’t seem very clear. Votes of 9-0 on a subject suggests all are in favor or all are against a subject when it is put to a vote. The 5-4 vote meant opinions varied among the Justices. Sometimes, a vote like this seems to infer the opinions are very balanced/split down the middle on a matter, but this is not always the case. In Simmons case, the scales tipped but each Justice had differing opinions on why it was unconstitutional. My own personal opinion parallels with Justices Scalia, Rehnquist, O’Connor and Thomas’ points of view. Justice Kennedy explained that society shifted to the belief that the juvenile death penalty is not appropriate and that more states have decided to prohibit the penalty. 30 states currently prohibit the death penalty, and 12 have banned the death penalty completely. Foreign court laws that prohibit execution were also examined. This seems to posit the idea that society in general is against administering the death penalty upon juveniles. The Justices stated the death penalty should be morally proportional to the culpability of the offender and previous rulings were examined. The Court cited general differences between offenders under 18 and adults, somehow reasoning they are not the worst offenders and should not be considered for the death penalty: (1) juveniles character isn’t well formed like an adult, (2) juveniles are susceptible and vulnerable to peer pressure and negative influences, (3) juveniles poorly thought out actions are because they are less responsible and less psychologically mature than adults are.

Many countries in the world disapprove of the death penalty for juveniles and a global opinion holds that it is too severe. I do not agree with that assessment. Scalia’s and O’Connor wrote separate dissents; my opinion mirrors theirs. There cannot be a categorical rule prohibiting execution of any juvenile offender; some adolescents are generally less mature than adults, yet some are more mature than adults. Some state legislatures allow for some 17 year old murderers to be executed under the death penalty ruling and not all states have moved as a consensus towards abolishing the death penalty. Just because some states shifted their opinions doesn’t mean there is a consensus to execute or not and it is still less than 50% of states. Also, the laws of other countries do not apply to the laws of our nation. It might be important to consider what they believe, it would be fine to use their point of view to decide what might be appropriate to use but it is not the sole resource for what courts utilize. Scalia noted, “a court should never invoke alien law” when it agrees with one’s own thinking, and ignore it otherwise when it is add odds.

Juries certainly understand the death penalty is reserved only for the most obscene offender and Missouri has only executed one juvenile. I believe this shows restraint on the jury’s part.  I believe that death is appropriate for Simmons because what he did was so foul and the worst criminals need to receive the death penalty, regardless of the age (pre-teens excluded based off maturity factors). Yes, many studies certainly show juveniles cannot take full responsibility for their decisions, yet they can make moral decisions and understand laws.

Killing someone or not killing someone is a simple decision to make. Scalia, noted that the majority picking and choosing scientific and sociological studies that support that juveniles are not as morally culpable as adults is inconceivable. The American Psychological Association submitted a brief, claiming that a rich body of evidence indicated juveniles do have sufficient maturity to decide whether to obtain an abortion without parental involvement. They believe that abortion is a more complex issue to decide upon than deciding to kill an innocent person.

Scalia believed as I do  that lawyers should not discern moral values and impose them on the people in the name of a flexible reading of the Constitution. Yet what is morality? If there is moral relativism, then does any form of morality matter or even make any sense? If eating children is allowable in some cultures and disgusting in other cultures, why should anyone find it repugnant at all? The human mind knows the difference between right and wrong. However, I also believe children are being taught that truth is a conundrum and learning to deal with emotional conflicts is taught less in households. I too believe the development of the psychological mind goes through sequential development and am sympathetic to juveniles who do not have a good upbringing and lack social support systems as it seems to retard maturity. However, as the parent of teens, I have seen well enough they are capable of making important decisions if need be, though they can at times be very selfish. I also believe teens can make important, moral decisions.

Quite simply, Simmons knew well enough that burglary and murder were wrong; why else plot it in secret rather than do it openly at high school? His partner Tessmer backed out of the scheme which indicates he sensed something inherently wrong with the idea. In the end psychology will continue to work on the issue of responsibility for a long time and science will have to one day prove those theories. The philosophical and psychological debate on crime theories and the motives of men have long been questioned, likely occurring even earlier than when Plato brought forth his theories on law and justice. What I could contribute here cannot be fully answered, and has not been fully answered since it was first asked. I believe 5 members of the Court was wrong and Simmons deserves the death penalty. The question I ask is, “what kind of children are we raising?”

I am certain I am not the only one who knows of military members whose lives were straightened out by the opportunity of serving in the military. The structure of the Marine Corps and other services is a life saver for some hell-bent on going to juvenile detention. Simmons clearly didn’t have the circumstances or opportunities that other teens did. We cannot over simplify his thorny situation nor give an easily solution to something that began long before he was born. We must raise our children to be the heroes of tomorrow. Instill in them the concepts of honor, duty, family, God. Perhaps Simmons didn’t have what you can give to your child today, love.

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Whether you are deployed or at home, children require structure to be mighty men and women with values. Simmons story is a tragic one. But, let us not forget poor Shirley Crook. She did not deserve what happened to her. No one does. Nothing will make her come back. But we can raise up a nation of respectful children whom fear God.  Let it start with us, and ensure we raise leaders in our households, and not a bunch of miscreants….Having rules is tough on a child and they will buck when they rules are tough. But having no rules or few rules is worse. Let them not pay the price for our unwillingness to parent.

…(end rant)

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About The Author

Mike credits his early military training as the one thing that kept him disciplined through the many years. He currently provides his expertise as an adviser for the DoD. Michael Kurcina subscribes to the Spotter Up way of life. “I will either find a way or I will make one”.

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