A primary purpose of the juvenile justice system is to hold juvenile offenders accountable for delinquent acts while providing treatment, rehabilitative services, and programs designed to prevent future involvement in law-violating behavior. Established in 1899 in Chicago, IL, in response to the harsh treatment children received in the criminal justice system, the first juvenile court recognized the developmental differences between children and adults and espoused a rehabilitative ideal. However, since the passage of revised death penalty statutes in the last quarter of the 20th century, and during recent periods of increased violent crime, a shift in the juvenile justice system toward stronger policies and punishments has occurred. This shift includes the waiver or transfer of more juvenile offenders to criminal court than in the past. Increasing numbers of capital offenders, including youth who committed capital offenses prior to their 18th birthdays, are now subject to "absolute" sentences, including the death penalty and life in prison without parole.

Currently, 38 States authorize the death penalty; 23 of these permit the execution of offenders who committed capital offenses prior to their 18th birthdays.1 However, the laws governing application of the death penalty in those 23 States vary, and the variation is not necessarily tied to rates of juvenile crime. Since 1973, when the death penalty was reinstated, 17 men have been executed for crimes they committed as juveniles (see table 1), and 74 people in the United States currently sit on death row for crimes they committed as juveniles (Streib, 2000).2

Table 1

Debate about the use of the death penalty for juveniles has grown more intense in light of calls for the harsher punishment of serious and violent juvenile offenders, changing perceptions of public safety, and international challenges to the death penalty's legality. Proponents see its use as a deterrent against similar crimes, an appropriate sanction for the commission of certain serious crimes, and a way to maintain public safety. Opponents believe it fails as a deterrent and is inherently cruel and point to the risk of wrongful conviction. The constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty has been the subject of intense national debate in the last decade. Several Supreme Court decisions and high-profile cases have led to increased public interest and closer examination of the issues by academics, legislators, and policymakers.

This Bulletin examines the status of capital punishment in the sentencing of individuals who commit crimes as juveniles.3 It examines the history of the death penalty, including the juvenile death penalty; provides a profile of those currently on death row; notes State-by-State differences in sentencing options; and reviews the use of the death penalty in an international context.

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Juveniles and the Death PenaltyCoordinating Council on Juvenile Justice
and Delinquency Prevention
November 2000