Policy Issues

Juveniles

Offenders under the age of 18 are exempt from the death penalty. Developments in brain science have renewed debate about whether young adults should also be excluded.

Overview

Children are not as culpable as adults for their actions. In the death penalty context, that principle has caused debate about what age is too young for someone to be subject to execution. International human rights law has long prohibited the use of the death penalty against people who were younger than age 18 at the time of the offense. See Executions of Juveniles Outside of the U.S. In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court brought the U.S. into compliance with that international norm, ruling that the U.S. Constitution also protects people from being sentenced to death for crimes committed when they were under 18. For more information, see the Roper v. Simmons Resource Page.

The Court had earlier (1987) held that the proper cutoff should be the age of 16, but states gradually applied more stringent standards to avoid conflict with other areas of the law where children were treated differently. By 2005, thirty states had either abolished the death penalty for all offenders or at least for those under the age of 18. As with its earlier ruling exempting defendants with intellectual disabilities, the Court found that a national consensus had formed around excluding those under 18, and that there was little to be gained in terms of deterrence or retribution by executing younger offenders. Some Justices pointed to the fact that the U.S. was virtually alone in the world in allowing juvenile offenders to be executed. The emerging science of brain development also contributed to this decision.

At Issue

Debate has continued on whether even the age of 18 is too young to assume full adult accountability for a heinous crime. Some have suggested that 21 would be a more appropriate age both because of the rights and responsibilities conferred by society at that age and because new brain science shows that critical areas of the brain relating to judgment, thrill seeking, and consequential thinking do not mature until the mid-twenties. The Court’s ruling on the application of the death penalty to juveniles has spurred other decisions regarding the use of life-without-parole sentences for this same group.

What DPIC Offers

DPIC has carefully monitored the flow of state legislation and court decisions regarding the appropriate age for the death penalty. The pertinent Supreme Court decision is fully analyzed. DPIC also makes available the thorough research by others on the use of the death penalty for juveniles in U.S. history, with statistics on sentences, executions, and the race of defendants.


News & Developments


Dec 11, 2018

Texas to Execute Prisoner Who Was a Teenager at Time of Crime

Texas is sched­uled to exe­cute Alvin Braziel, Jr. on December 11, 2018, in what would be the state’s 13th exe­cu­tion of the year. Braziel was 18 years old in 1993 when he killed a man and sex­u­al­ly assault­ed a woman after a failed rob­bery attempt. Hi…