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Children and the Death Penalty
Jeff Moore, Colts Neck (NJ) High School

CORE QUESTIONS:

  1. How do various countries approach the rehabilitation/punishment of child offenders?
  2. What standards have been proposed by international organizations for the treatment of child offenders?
  3. What are the social, economic and political factors that lead children into crime in various societies?

OVERVIEW: Only five nations in the world allow the execution of juvenile offenders. The United States is one of them. Punishing child offenders in such a way often seems to run counter to the objectives within every justice system that protect children as separate, vulnerable members of society. Do the countries that allow the execution of children simply act out of hypocrisy, or do other factors influence such decisions? In addition, what factors influence children to take on a life of crime, in the first place? This lesson explores various social, political and economic characteristics related to the issue of children and the death penalty. Students research and present the nations involved in order to develop profiles of both the archetypal serious child offender and the typical unforgiving criminal justice system. Students are encouraged through enrichment activities to interview local authorities as well as representatives from the countries involved.

TIME REQUIRED: Three to six 40-minute class sessions, based upon options chosen; roughly a week of out-of-class student research and planning prior to the last session(s).

SUGGESTED GRADE LEVELS: Grade 9-12 Social Studies

INTERDISCIPLINARY APPLICATIONS: Appropriate literature/films on the treatment of child offenders may be used in Art and Literature classes to illustrate various points raised by this lesson (Dickens' Oliver Twist, for example). Students in these courses may also synthesize the information presented into poetry, journals, visual art, etc.

NEW JERSEY CORE CONTENT STANDARDS: This lesson addresses the following NJ Core Content Curriculum Standards in Social Studies: 6.3, 6.4, 6.5, 6.6.

INSTRUCTIONAL OBJECTIVES: At the conclusion of this lesson, students will be able to ...

  1. identify five countries in which children are subjected to capital punishment, and describe the various social, economic and political factors that influence the status of child offenders in those countries;
  2. summarize the themes presented by an Amnesty International report on children and the death penalty;
  3. take on a role within a group to design and implement a plan for teaching a topic to the class;
  4. evaluate the effectiveness of various justice systems, including that of the United States, in dealing with child offenders guilty of serious crimes.

STRATEGIES:

INTRODUCTION: 1-2 CLASS SESSIONS
The teacher will open the lesson by directing students to list 5 ways in which children are specifically protected by the justice system in the United States of America. Students may then pair to expand their lists to a total of 10 items. The teacher will invite students to share their items, which should be recorded on the board.

The teacher should move class discussion toward preliminary answers to the following questions:

  1. Why do you think the American justice system affords children more/different protections as compared to adults?
  2. Why does the American justice system treat child offenders differently from adult offenders?
  3. Among other nations, do you suspect that America treats its children with more or less compassion?

The teacher should then introduce the issue of child executions by citing the fact that five world countries currently allow the execution of child offenders: Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. (Source: Amnesty USA) The teacher should then show/describe the Amnesty International report: Children and the Death Penalty: Executions Worldwide Since 1990.

Given available time and the number of students, the teacher may opt to outline the major points of the report in order to complete this phase of the lesson in one session. If more time is available, the teacher may take a second session to complete a light JIGSAW. The JIGSAW may be conducted in the following manner:

After a brief summary of the report's introduction (Section 1), the teacher will assign each student a section of the report:

Section 2: International Standards
Section 3: Opposition at the United Nations
Section 4: National Law and Practice
Section 5: Executions of Child Offenders Since 1990

Note: Section 5, due to its length, may be broken into smaller pieces (by region, etc.).

Students will work individually to summarize their assigned section into a list of 5-7 bullets. They will then gather into expert groups (students with the same excerpt) to combine their lists. By Session 2, each student will be divided into a learning group (students with different excerpts) to teach their lists.

The teacher should conclude this activity with a debriefing discussion or diagnostic individual writing sample to confirm student understanding of the report. Questions might include:

  1. Characterize the world community's overall reaction as aggressively against, moderately against or only paying lip service to the execution of child offenders.
  2. Use several countries to describe similarities between child offenders who were subject to capital punishment.
  3. Do you feel that the world is making progress on this issue, or is it going backwards?

STUDENT RESEARCH AND PLANNING: 1-2 CLASS SESSIONS
The teacher will set the stage by giving the class the following assignment: "The United Nations has asked you, a UN committee, to prepare briefing reports on the 5 world countries that allow the execution of child offenders: Iran, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United States. You will work in a group to prepare a report on one of these countries. Your report should include information on the economic and political conditions in the country that may push children into criminal activities, the living conditions of prisoners within the country's criminal justice system and a prediction on whether the country is likely to change its policies in the coming years. The report will consist of a brochure or short paper describing these items and a short presentation that includes a visual aid in the form of a poster or PowerPoint presentation."

The teacher may include additional presentation guidelines based upon curriculum, etc.

The teacher will divide students into 5 groups, one for each of the following countries. The teacher may assign cooperative learning roles based upon tasks (researcher, note taker, coordinator, artist, etc.) or research domains (political and economic, conditions, prediction). Groups will spend the remainder of the session(s) in the school's Media Center conducting research and designing their presentations. Additional class time may be granted if the students need further assistance. Otherwise, the teacher may set a due date for the presentations.

PRESENTATIONS AND DEBRIEFING (AT A LATER DATE): 1-2 CLASS SESSIONS
Groups will present their briefing reports. The teacher may allow for questions and answers after each report, as well as time to conduct peer assessment (see the Assessment section, below).

A written or discussed debriefing may be conducted using an appropriate strategy and may include an exploration of the following questions:

  1. What types of political, social and economic factors impact upon the rehabilitation and punishment of child offenders? In other words, what does a country that allows the execution of child criminals "look like?"
  2. What details might be included in a "profile" of a child offender? What crimes do they commit, etc.?
  3. Why do you think the countries presented resort to capital punishment? What other options exist, given the opportunities available to the various governments?
  4. How do children fit into the larger criminal justice systems of the presented countries? Are these systems geared toward rehabilitation, punishment or both? Does that distinction impact upon child offenders in the 5 countries?

MATERIALS:  Students require access to the Internet or photocopies of Children and the Death Penalty: Executions Worldwide Since 1990 (from Amnesty International). Students should also have access to the Media Center for the "Student Research and Planning" phase of the lesson.

REFERENCES:

ASSESSMENT:

The teacher may use a suitable rubric to score students individually and/or as teams on their presentations and research. Peer assessment may also be employed, using the same rubric. Additional/enrichment assessment activities may include:

  1. Students involved or interested in Model United Nations activities may research relevant UN documents and resolutions on children and the death penalty. Students may also write their own resolutions based upon topics raised by the presentations.
  2. Students may use the Internet or other sources to develop a database or web page tracking current events items related to children and justice/the death penalty. Stories may be catalogued and discussed in class as time permits.
  3. Students may research various historical societies (Rome, Industrial England, etc.) to compare past and present approaches to the rehabilitation/punishment of child offenders.
  4. Students may research and evaluate NGO's and opposition groups within the 5 countries presented to determine what types of movements exist to change juvenile justice policies.
  5. Students may interview members of the local community (law enforcement/prosecution personnel, defense attorneys, counselors, school discipline officials) to develop a "response" to the Amnesty International report. Students may also contact representatives from the other four countries presented.


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