Report: Racial Disparities in Death Sentences Imposed on Late Adolescent Offenders Have Grown Since Supreme Court Ruling Banning Juvenile Death Penalty

Racial disparities in U.S. death sentences imposed on late adolescent offenders have grown substantially since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the use of capital punishment against juvenile offenders in 2005, according to a new report by University of North Carolina political scientist Frank R. Baumgartner (pictured).

Baumgartner’s report, Race and Age Characteristics of those Sentenced to Death before and after Roper, released on June 21, 2022 reviewed death sentences imposed on more than 8,700 individuals from 1972 through 2021, including more than 1,500 aged 20 or younger. Baumgartner found that throughout this time period, defendants of color were overrepresented among those sentenced to death for crimes they were charged with committing before turning 21 years old.

More than 3 in 5 of both juvenile offenders and late adolescent offenders sentenced to death in the U.S. have been defendants of color, Baumgartner found. Since the Supreme Court ruled in 2005 in Roper v. Simmons that subjecting offenders younger than age 18 to the death penalty constituted cruel and unusual punishment, that number has surged to nearly 80%.

“[I]n the period since Roper,” Baumgartner said, “minorities are substantially over-represented in the Late Adolescent Class. The disadvantage of age cumulates with the disadvantage of minority status.”

A DPIC analysis of the data found that, before Roper, 48.9% of death sentenced juvenile offenders and 48.2% of death sentenced late adolescents were Black. Those of Latinx descent constituted 11.1% of death sentenced juveniles and 8.8% of late adolescents sentenced to death. But after Roper, more than half (51.3%) of all death sentenced offenders have been Black and 24.7% have been Latinx. Before Roper, 32.8% of juvenile offenders and 35.1% of late adolescent death-sentenced defendants were white. That plummeted after Roper to 20.4% of late adolescent defendants.

Baumgartner called the growing racial disparities “a troubling fact … that should cause policymakers to consider extending the protections of Roper to those in the 18-to-20 age category as well. If we are to have a death penalty,” he said, “it should target the most deserving, rather than the most vulnerable.”

The Data on Race and Age of Offenders Sentenced to Death

235 juvenile offenders were sentenced to death in the U.S. between the return of the death penalty following Furman v. Georgia on June 29, 1972 and the Court’s decision in Roper In March 2005. Just under half (48.9%) were Black, roughly one-third (32.8%) were white, 11.1% were Latinx, and 1.3% were other races. Overall, 61.3% were defendants of color. Baumgartner did not have race data on 6.0% of death-sentenced juvenile offenders.

DPIC’s analysis of the data found that 59.3% of the 1,177 late adolescent offenders sentenced to death before Roper were defendants of color. 48.2% were Black; 8.8% were Lantinx; and 2.3% were other races. 35.1% were white and race data was unavailable for 5.6%.

Baumgartner examined the race and age characteristics of a data set of 8,733 people sentenced to death across the United States from the date the U.S. Supreme Court declared existing death penalty statutes unconstitutional in Furman v. Georgia in June 1972 through the end of 2021. He reviewed both the database as a whole and a subset of death sentences that were imposed after Roper prohibited the use of the death penalty against juveniles younger than age 18.

He classified death sentences by the age of the defendant at the time of the crime and the defendant’s race, dividing age into four categories: juveniles (under age 18), late adolescents (aged 18-20), age 21 and older, and age unknown. He was able to obtain age and race information for 8,046 of the individuals sentenced to death. DPIC also analyzed an additional subset of Baumgartner’s data that comprised all death sentences imposed prior to Roper.

Death Sentences Imposed in the United States
1972 through 2021 (by Race and Age)

Age:

Under 18

18 to 20

21+

Missing

Total

Race

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

White

77

32.77

442

33.51

3,339

48.14

59

24.28

3,917

44.85

Black

115

48.94

640

48.52

2,602

37.51

75

30.86

3,432

39.30

Hispanic

26

11.06

139

10.54

490

7.06

17

7.00

672

7.69

Other

3

1.28

30

2.27

143

2.06

3

1.23

179

2.05

Missing

14

5.96

68

5.16

362

5.22

89

36.63

533

6.10

Total

235

100

1,319

100

6,939

100

243

100

8,733

100

Death Sentences Imposed in the United States
Pre-Roper (by Race and Age)

Age:

Under 18

18 to 20

21+

Missing

Total

Race

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

White

77

32.77

413

35.09

2,874

48.82

50

24.88

3,414

45.54

Black

115

48.94

567

48.17

2,193

37.25

61

30.35

2936

39.16

Hispanic

26

11.06

104

8.84

345

5.86

11

5.47

486

6.48

Other

3

1.28

27

2.29

114

1.94

3

1.49

179

2.39

Missing

14

5.96

66

5.61

358

6.08

76

37.81

514

6.86

Total

235

100

1,177

100

5,887

100

201

100

7,497

100

Death Sentences Imposed in the United States
After Roper (by Race and Age)

Age:

Under 18

18 to 20

21+

Missing

Total

Race

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

No.

%

White

N/A

N/A

29

20.42

465

44.20

9

21.43

503

40.70

Black

N/A

N/A

73

51.41

409

38.88

14

33.33

496

40.13

Hispanic

N/A

N/A

35

24.65

145

13.78

6

14.29

186

15.05

Other

N/A

N/A

3

2.11

29

2.76

0

0.00

32

2.59

Missing

N/A

N/A

2

1.41

4

0.38

13

30.95

19

1.54

Total

N/A

N/A

142

100

1,052

100

42

100

1,236

100

The analysis showed that the more vulnerable death-sentenced defendants were as a class, the more the death sentences imposed on that class of defendants were racially disproportionate. This observation held true across races, although juvenile and late adolescent Black defendants faced an equally disproportionate risk of being sentenced to death in the pre-Roper time frame when both groups were eligible for capital punishment. Baumgartner suggested that the overrepresentation of Black defendants in these age groups may be attributable, at least in part, to “the tendency to attribute adult characteristics to youthful black and minority individuals.”

Prior to Roper, Blacks defendants comprised 48.9% and 48.5% of death sentenced juvenile and late adolescent defendants, ten percentage points higher than the percentage of death sentenced African Americans aged 21 or older. Latinx defendants comprised 11.1% of juvenile offenders sentenced to death, 8.8% of late adolescents, and 5.9% of death sentenced offenders aged 21 or older. By contrast, white defendants comprised 32.7% of juveniles, 35.1% of late adolescents, and 48.8% of offenders aged 21 or older sentenced to death.

Further, Baumgartner found, Roper disproportionately benefited white adolescents, as the percentage of death-sentenced late adolescents of color rose by 18.9% percentage points, from 59.3% to 78.2%. Meanwhile, the number of death-sentenced white adolescents dropped 14.7 percentage points, from 35.1% to 20.4%.

Baumgartner’s data also shows that, at the same time the number of death sentences has declined in the U.S., racial disparities in sentencing have increased. Death sentences peaked in the United States in the mid-1990s, with more than 300 new death sentences imposed per year. They have declined by approximately 90% since then, including a 70% drop in the decade before the pandemic. There have been fewer than 50 new death sentences imposed every year since 2015.

From 1972 to March 2005, defendants of color comprised 48.0% of all people sentenced to death, 45.5% were white, and race data was unavailable for 6.9%. White death-sentenced defendants outnumbered African Americans by 6.4 percentage points. Since Roper, 57.8% of all defendants sentenced to death have been people of color, 40.7% have been white, and race data is unavailable for 1.5%. The number of white and Black death-sentenced defendants has been nearly equal, with white death-sentenced defendants outnumbering African Americans by less than six tenths of a percentage point. Moreover, the decline in death sentencing across the United States predates Roper, suggesting that the racial disparities associated with that decline are even greater.

In August 2022, the American Psychological Association (APA) overwhelmingly voted in favor of a resolution calling for an end to the death penalty for individuals aged 18-20. The APA resolution said that “the same scientific and societal reasons” that led the U.S. Supreme Court to bar capital punishment for offenders younger than age 18 also “apply to the late adolescent class.” It also noted that “Black youth are punished more harshly than Whites” and that “it is clear death as a penalty is not applied equally and fairly among members of the late adolescent class.” Baumgartner’s data corroborates the APA’s contentions.

Baumgartner’s data also strengthens the Death Penalty Information Center’s finding, reported when DPIC released its Death Penalty Census in late June 2022, that “members of vulnerable groups who are sentenced to death (juveniles, intellectually disabled prisoners, the innocent) are disproportionately likely to be defendants of color.

DPIC found that defendants of color comprise 64.2% of death-row exonerees and 83.1% of all death-row prisoners later found to be ineligible for the death penalty because of intellectual disability. DPIC also found that, while defendants of color constitute 44.3% of those executed in the U.S. over the past 50 years, 54.5% of those executed for offenses committed as juveniles, 69.8% of the intellectually disabled defendants executed before Atkins v. Virginia declared the practice unconstitutional, and 75.0% of the likely intellectually disabled prisoners who have been executed despite Atkins’ prohibition of the practice have been people of color.

Sources

Frank Baumgartner, Race and Age Characteristics of those Sentenced to Death before and after Roper, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, Department of Political Science, June 212022.