Policy Issues


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.


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


Sep 05, 2023

Sole Woman on Tennessee Death Row, Age 18 at Time of Crime, Raises New Appeal Based on Youthfulness

Attorneys for Christa Pike, the only woman on Tennessee’s death row, filed a motion on August 30 to re-open her appeals based on a recent deci­sion from the Tennessee Supreme Court. In 2022, the Court ruled in State v. Booker that manda­to­ry life sen­tences in homi­cide cas­es are uncon­sti­tu­tion­al when imposed on juve­niles, draw­ing on U.S. Supreme Court prece­dent that held that juve­niles are less mature, more vul­ner­a­ble to peer pres­sure, and gen­er­al­ly less cul­pa­ble than adults. Ms. Pike’s…

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Aug 11, 2023

After Spending 41 Years in Prison, Former Death Row Prisoner Gary Tyler Debuts First Solo Art Exhibition

Gary Tyler was just 16 years old when he was charged with shoot­ing a white stu­dent in 1974 and sen­tenced to death, a crime that, many wit­ness­es agree, he did not com­mit. Mr. Tyler, then a sopho­more in high school in St. Charles Parish, Louisiana, was rid­ing a school bus that was attacked by a seg­re­ga­tion­ist mob. In the chaos, some­one fired a shot that killed a 13-year-old white boy, Timothy Weber. After Mr. Tyler, who is Black, spoke to one of the deputies, he was arrest­ed for allegedly…

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Jun 13, 2023

BOOKS: Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy”

In Seventy Times Seven: A True Story of Murder and Mercy, author Alex Mar presents an in-depth account of a vio­lent homi­cide and its impact on a racial­ly divid­ed com­mu­ni­ty and the indi­vid­u­als involved. Mar not only dis­cuss­es the fears asso­ci­at­ed with mod­ern crime and pun­ish­ment but also address­es the human capac­i­ty for com­pas­sion and for­give­ness. In the pro­logue, Mar writes that this is a sto­ry that asks what any com­mu­ni­ty is will­ing to accept as just con­se­quences — as…

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Jun 06, 2023

Jurors Who Sentenced Michael Tisius to Death Express Regret

Four jurors and two alter­nates from the 2010 tri­al of Michael Tisius have said in affi­davits that they would sup­port clemen­cy in his case. Mr. Tisius is sched­uled to be exe­cut­ed in Missouri on June 6, 2023. In his clemen­cy peti­tion, and in inter­views with the New York Times, the jurors said that mit­i­gat­ing evi­dence that was not pre­sent­ed at tri­al would have altered their sen­tenc­ing deci­sions. (The image to the left is art cre­at­ed by Mr. Tisius and includ­ed in his clemency…

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Mar 23, 2023

New Podcast: Protecting Especially Vulnerable Defendants from the Death Penalty — A Discussion with Karen Steele

In the lat­est episode of Discussions with DPIC,” Robert Dunham, for­mer Executive Director of DPIC, inter­views Karen Steele (pic­tured), a researcher and defense attor­ney in Oregon, regard­ing the spe­cial char­ac­ter­is­tics of late ado­les­cent defen­dants fac­ing the death penal­ty. Research by Steele and oth­ers points to the incom­plete brain devel­op­ment in those aged 18 – 21 and how that can be exac­er­bat­ed in those suf­fer­ing from fetal alco­hol spec­trum dis­or­der. The research has also found that…

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