Sentencing and Program Options

Although researchers have begun to analyze and evaluate the effects of programming on serious, violent, and chronic juvenile offenders, few programs target juvenile capital offenders per se. A literature search of the National Criminal Justice Reference Service (NCJRS) database reveals scant research on programs for juvenile capital offenders. One effective program is Texas' Capital Offender Program, which originated in 1988 at the Giddings State Home and School. This structured, intensive, 16-week program helps small groups of juvenile capital offenders gain access to their emotions through role-playing. The goal of this empathy training program is to address offenders' emotional detachment and inability to accept responsibility for their crimes. Each participant is required to reenact the crime committed, first as the perpetrator and then as the victim, in addition to other scenes from their lives (Matthews, 1995). A qualitative evaluation found the program to be effective. The youth unanimously believed that the program gave them insight into their own and others' feelings. A quantitative study would yield more information about the long-term effectiveness of this program.

The development of sentencing and program options for juvenile capital offenders is difficult in light of the lack of knowledge about this small population. With greater attention paid to assessing juvenile capital offenders, correctional facilities could more effectively provide programs that address offenders' needs. An additional difficulty is the difference in how the courts handle juvenile capital offenders. Some young offenders are kept in juvenile court, while others are transferred to criminal court. These offenders face a variety of sentencing patterns, depending primarily on State law, the local and national political climate, and the skills of defense counsel.

A review of individual juvenile and adult death penalty cases often reveals years of trauma and deprivation prior to the commission of capital offenses. Public investment in early intervention programs for children at risk of abuse, academic support for low-functioning students, and positive involvement with caring adults will go a long way toward eliminating violent crimes, including capital offenses and the resulting sentences that drain the Nation's resources—both human and financial.

In recent years, various innovative and effective interventions have been developed to prevent juvenile delinquency. Minimizing risk factors and maximizing protective factors throughout the developmental cycle from birth through adolescence can give all youth a better chance to lead productive, crime-free lives. Early intervention programs and services for juveniles engaged in high-risk and minor delinquent behaviors are significantly reducing the number of juveniles penetrating the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Many interventions geared toward serious and chronic juvenile offenders have had positive effects on subsequent reoffense rates.23 Graduated sanctions systems, designed to place sentenced juveniles—especially serious, violent, and chronic offenders—into appropriate treatment programs while protecting the public safety, are being implemented in jurisdictions across the country. These programs and services recognize that children are malleable and that research-based interventions are able to affect the lives of juvenile offenders positively and constructively while helping to reduce the number of young people who commit crimes that can put them on death row or subject them to life in prison without possibility of release.


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