American Psychological Association votes overwhelmingly to pass resolution opposing death penalty for teens ages 18-20

The American Psychological Association (APA) has overwhelmingly passed a resolution calling on courts and lawmakers to ban the use of the death penalty against those accused of committing crimes when they were under 21 . Asserting that “the same scientific and societal reasons” that led the United States Supreme Court to ban capital punishment for offenders under 18 “apply equally to the late teen class,” the APA , the largest professional organization of psychologists in the country, voted 161 to 7, with 1 abstention, to formally oppose the death penalty for people between the ages of 18 and 20.

The resolution, adopted on August 3, 2022, calls a developed society’s use of the death penalty against end-of-life teenage offenders “unreliable and morally abhorrent”. The resolution points out that “the brain of 18 to 20 year olds continues to develop in key brain systems related to higher-order executive functions and self-control, such as planning ahead, assessing consequences of behavior and emotional regulation.” According to the psychologists, the brain development of late adolescents “cannot be reliably distinguished from that of 17-year-olds with respect to these key brain systems.”

The APA resolution also notes that “black youths are punished more severely than whites” and that “it is clear that death as a punishment is not applied equally and equitably among members of the class of late adolescents”.

“[E]External factors such as race, ethnicity, and gender (of defendant and victim) influence prosecutors’ discretionary decisions to search and their success in obtaining death verdicts for defendants who are members of the late adolescent class,” the resolution reads. “When considered in conjunction with neuroscientific evidence of the degree of ongoing development of key brain systems that remains to be accomplished in the late adolescent classroom, these and other status variables act to create biases and biases that drive to a higher likelihood of error by the trialists of fact in death penalty cases.

Drawing on findings from the Society for Black Neuropsychology, the Hispanic Neuropsychological Society, and the Asian Neuropsychological Association, the APA noted that racial bias influences outcomes in the criminal justice system, such as rates of conviction, wrongful convictions and levels of punishment. Young black people, including young black people between the ages of 18 and 20, are more likely to be mistakenly perceived as older and more responsible in criminal prosecutions.

In the resolution, the APA said the rationale for the landmark 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision roper vs. Simmons decision should apply to persons over the age of 17. roper, the United States Supreme Court ruled that the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibited the execution of offenders under the age of 18 at the time of the crime. In Decision 5-4, the Court reaffirmed the need to refer to “evolving standards of decency which mark the progress of a maturing society” in determining what punishments are so disproportionate as to be cruel and unusual.

The APA submitted an amicus curiae brief which the court cited in rendering its decision. In the years that followed, more research was conducted, expanding the scientific understanding of brain development in people between the ages of 18 and 20, the resolution says. Extensive research has shown that there is significant development of executive control systems, including the prefrontal cortex, beyond age 20, according to the APA. These brain systems are involved in legal proceedings because of their role in decision making and understanding consequences.

“[I]In the context of capital cases where death is a potential penalty, which generally involve crimes that occurred in situations of high emotional arousal, it is particularly interesting to note that current developmental science documents that during emotionally arousing situations , this class of late teens reacts more like the younger ones. adolescents than adults (Figner et al., 2009; Cohen et al., 2016; Steinberg et al., 2008; Icenogle et al., 2019) although – like younger adolescents – show similar cognitive ability to adults when not under increased emotional pressure or arousal (Figner et al., 2009; Icenogle et al., 2019; Steinberg et al., 2008),” the resolution reads.


American Psychological Association, PAA Resolution on the imposition of the death penalty on the elderly 18 Through 20also known as late teen class, august 4, 2022; American Psychological Association, PAA calls for extending ineligibility for the death penalty to underage adolescent offenders 21August 4, 2022; PAA calls for limiting the death penalty to the age of offenders 21 and older, ScienceX​.com, August 5, 2022; Anne Schindler, The American Psychological Association’s Long-Proposed Death Penalty Ban 1820First Coast News, August 4,2022.

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