State-by-State Differences in Sentencing Options

Twenty-two States—more than half of the 38 jurisdictions authorizing the death penalty—have imposed the death penalty on offenders who committed capital offenses before age 18 (see table 3). Since 1973, Alabama, Florida, and Texas have used the penalty more than other jurisdictions. Of the juveniles sentenced to the death penalty, all 21 Hispanic offenders were sentenced in Arizona, Florida, Nevada, and Texas. Ten of the eleven cases in Louisiana involved African American offenders, and all Oklahoma offenders were white. There were four cases of female offenders, one each in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Mississippi. The 13 youngest offenders, who were age 15 at the time of their crimes, came from 10 different States (Streib, 2000).

Table 3

The States have responded differently to the requirement imposed by Thompson. The Supreme Court of Louisiana held that Thompson prevents 15-year-old offenders from being executed in that State (State v. Stone15 and Dugar v. State16). The same is true for Alabama (Flowers v. State17), Florida (Allen v. State18), and Indiana (Cooper v. State19). The Florida Supreme Court ruled that the Florida Constitution also prohibits the death penalty for 16-year-olds (Brennan v. State20) (Streib, 2000).

Currently, 38 States and the Federal Government have statutes authorizing the death penalty for certain forms of murder. In 16 of those jurisdictions (40 percent), offenders must at a minimum be age 18 at the time of the crime to be eligible for that punishment (see table 4). Five jurisdictions (13 percent) have a minimum age of 17. Nineteen jurisdictions (47 percent) use age 16 as the minimum age. In 7 of these jurisdictions, age 16 is expressed in the statute; in the other 12, age 16 has been established by court ruling (American Bar Association, 2000).

Table 4

Significant State legislative activity concerning the death penalty occurred in 1999.21 Both Nebraska and Illinois mandated a comprehensive evaluation of the death penalty. Although the Governor of Nebraska vetoed a proposed moratorium on executions, legislation was enacted that called for a comprehensive study to determine whether the death penalty is applied fairly. The Governor of Illinois ordered an evaluation after 13 death row inmates in the past few years were found not guilty when their cases were reexamined. Legislatures in Connecticut, Maryland, Missouri, Montana, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania saw the introduction—but not the passage—of legislation calling for moratoriums on the death penalty or authorizing studies of its use. In 1999, 12 of the 38 States that currently have the death penalty saw the introduction of bills to abolish it—8 more States than in the previous year (American Bar Association, 2000).

In 1999, many States also were involved in reassessing their use of the death penalty for juveniles. Montana's legislature approved legislation that barred the imposition of the death penalty on offenders who were under age 18 at the time they committed capital offenses. Similar bills were introduced in Indiana, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, and Texas. Bills that called for the expansion of the death penalty to juvenile offenders ages 16 and 17 were rejected in several States, including California (American Bar Association, 2000).


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