Competence, Culpability, and Punishment: Implications of Atkins for Executing and Sentencing Adolescents
Hofstra Law Review
The Supreme Court has explored the issues of culpability, proportionality, and deserved punishment most fully in the context of capital punishment. In death penalty decisions addressing developmental impairments and culpability, the Court has considered the cases of defendants with mental retardation and older adolescents, and has created an anomalous inconsistency by reaching opposite conclusions about the deserved punishment for each group of defendants. Recently, in Atkins v. Virginia, the Court relied on both empirical and normative justifications to categorically prohibit states from executing defendants with mental retardation. Atkins reasoned that mentally retarded offenders lacked the reasoning, judgment, and impulse control necessary to equate their culpability with that of other death-eligible criminal defendants. This Article contends that the same psychological and developmental characteristics that render mentally retarded offenders less blameworthy than competent adult offenders also characterize the immaturity of judgment and reduced culpability of adolescents and should likewise prohibit their execution. Moreover, the diminished criminal responsibility of adolescents has broader implications for proportionality in sentencing young offenders. Because the generic culpability of adolescents differs from that of responsible adults, penal proportionality requires formal, categorical recognition of youthfulness as a mitigating factor in sentencing.
Barry C. Feld, Competence, Culpability, and Punishment: Implications of Atkins for Executing and Sentencing Adolescents, 32 Hofstra L. Rev. 463 (2003), available at https://scholarship.law.umn.edu/faculty_articles/310.
Reprinted with the permission of the Hofstra Law Review Association.