Juveniles and the Death Penalty

May 11, 2004

As a society, we recognize that children, those under 18 years old, can not and do not function as adults. That is why the law takes special steps to protect children from the consequences of their actions and often seeks to ameliorate the harm cause when children make wrong choices by giving them a second chance. The law prohibits people under eighteen from voting, serving in the military and on juries, but in some states, they can be executed for crimes they committed before they reach adulthood. The United States Supreme Court prohibits execution for crimes committed at the age of fifteen or younger. Nineteen states have laws permitting the execution of persons who committed crimes at sixteen or seventeen. Since 1973, 226 juvenile death sentences have been imposed. Twenty-two juvenile offenders have been executed and 82 remain on death row. 

  • On January 27, 2004, the U.S. Supreme Court decided to review whether executing sixteen and seventeen year-olds violates the Constitution's  ban on 'cruel and unusual punishment.' The review comes after the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the death sentence of 17 year-old Christopher Simmons. Roper v. Simmons will be reviewed by the justices this fall, four of whom have called the juvenile death penalty 'inconsistent with evolving standards of decency in a civilized society.'

 While adolescents can and should be held accountable for their actions, new scientific information demonstrates that they can not fairly be held accountable to the same extent as adults. Studies by the Harvard Medical School, the National Institute of Mental Health and the UCLA's Department of Neuroscience finds that the frontal and pre-frontal lobes of the brain, which regulate impulse control and judgment, are not fully developed in adolescents. Development is not completed until somewhere between 18 and 22 years of age. These findings confirm that adolescents generally have a greater tendency towards impulsivity, making unsound judgments or reasoning, and are less aware of the consequences of their actions.

Because of their immaturity, adolescent children are also more likely to be coerced by adults and are sometimes the pawns for more sophisticated criminals. They are also more likely to be taken advantage of during the investigation of a criminal case. Juveniles are often intimidated by adults and authority figures, and are therefore more likely to be the victims of coerced confessions, which are often false. Moreover juveniles are less likely to invoke their Miranda Rights, including their right to legal representation. Most importantly, the goals of the death penalty do not apply to juveniles. Retribution aims to give the harshest punishment to the worst offender. Juveniles are the most likely to be capable of rehabilitation. Given their emotional immaturity and lessened culpability, they are not among the ""worst of the worst.""

Public opinion in the United States increasingly opposes the execution of juvenile offenders. According to a 2003 Harris Poll, 69 percent of the people polled opposed the death penalty for juveniles; only 22 percent supported the execution of juvenile offenders, while 5 percent offered no opinion. Meanwhile, the juvenile death penalty disproportionately affects children of color, as it is subject to the same racial disparities as have been discovered throughout the use of capital punishment.

Internationally, the execution of juveniles is largely considered inhumane, anachronistic, and in direct conflict with fundamental principles of justice. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights bans the execution of juvenile offenders. Although the United States has signed the ICCPR and therefore agreed to be bound by its standards, the U.S. has reserved the right to execute juvenile offenders as long as our Constitution is interpreted to permit the practice. Of the 123 countries that currently use the death penalty, only the United States and Iran impose death sentences on juveniles. In the fall of 2003, however, Iran's judiciary began drafting a bill that will raise the minimum age for death sentences from fifteen to eighteen. The bill will also exclude those under eighteen from receiving life-terms or lashing as punishment. Ironically, many of the countries that the United States government regularly criticizes for human rights abuses have abolished the practice of executing juveniles. For example, between 1994 and 2000, Yemen, Zimbabwe, China and parts of Pakistan amended their laws to prohibit the execution of juvenile offenders. In continuing what is universally viewed as a barbaric and uncivilized practice, the United States has, over the past decade, executed more juvenile offenders than every other nation in the world combined.

To learn about the Presidential Candidates' stance on the juvenile death penalty, click here

See the American Bar Association's web site on Juvenile Death Penalty

Read information and statistics about the juvenile death penalty here

Join the NCADP's Campaign to End Juvenile Executions

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