STUDIES: Raising the Age of Those Eligible for the Death Penalty Would Likely Reduce Racial Disparities

Professor Craig Haney (pictured) of the University of California, Santa Cruz, Professor Frank Baumgartner of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and Karen Steele, a criminal defense attorney in Oregon, examined age and race data from nearly 9,000 death sentences imposed in the U.S. from 1972 to 2021. They found that the racial disparities that plague the death penalty were more pronounced in cases involving juvenile and late adolescent defendants. Building on the findings of a 2022 study by Baumgartner, the authors found that, “Late adolescent class members of Color have been sentenced to death in far greater numbers than their White counterparts.” In particular, after the U.S. Supreme Court banned the death penalty for those under 18 at the time of their crime in Roper v. Simmons (2005), nearly four out of every five death sentences imposed on those aged 18-20 at the time of their crime were imposed on persons of color.

The authors stated: “It is difficult to envision a plausible explanation for this pattern of results that is based on the objective characteristics of the crimes or the defendants in question. Instead, it seems clear that decision-makers at key stages of a capital case—prosecutors and jurors—are more likely to perceive crimes committed by young persons of Color as more heinous or otherwise more deserving of the death penalty, or to believe that young persons of Color are somehow and for some reason less likely to be rehabilitated, or are otherwise simply more culpable for their actions.”

In line with a 2022 resolution by the American Psychological Association strongly supporting a ban on the death penalty for those under 21, the study noted that late adolescents (age 18-20) have similar capacities and levels of maturity in a variety of areas, including their ability to “cognitively process information, regulate and control emotional reactions, avoid undue risk-taking, and block out attentional interference, peer influences, and stress.” The Supreme Court took into account juveniles’ ongoing neurological development in excluding them from the death penalty. The authors recommended extending that age exclusion: “Applying the logic of Roper, members of this group, too, should be considered not only as less culpable than adults but also less susceptible to whatever deterrent value the death penalty might have. Subjecting the late adolescent class to capital punishment thus fails to further the penological goals of retribution and deterrence on which the Court has relied.”

The authors concluded that, in conjunction with the racial disparities that are heightened in sentencing of late adolescents, this presents a strong reason to extend the minimum age for death sentences to 21. “In this way, the extension of a Roper-like exclusion to the late adolescent class would not only be scientifically justified but also have the salutary effect of reducing the disproportionate imposition of capital punishment on young persons of Color.”


Craig Haney, Frank R. Baumgartner, and Karen Steele, Roper and Race: the Nature and Effects of Death Penalty Exclusions for Juveniles and the Late Adolescent Class,” Journal of Pediatric Neuropsychology (forth­com­ing Nov. 2023)