U.S. Department of JusticeOffice of Justice ProgramsOffice of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency PreventionCoordinating Councilon Juvenile Justice and Delinquency PreventionA primary purpose of the juvenile justice system is to hold juvenileoffenders accountable for delinquent acts while providing treatment,rehabilitative services, and programs designed to prevent future involve-ment in law-violating behavior. Established in 1899 in Chicago, IL, inresponse to the harsh treatment children received in the criminal justicesystem, the first juvenile court recognized the developmental differencesbetween children and adults and espoused a rehabilitative ideal. However,since the passage of revised death penalty statutes in the last quarter ofthe 20th century, and during recent periods of increased violent crime, ashift in the juvenile justice system toward stronger policies and punish-ments has occurred.This shift includes the waiver or transfer of morejuvenile offenders to criminal court than in the past. Increasing numbersof capital offenders, including youth who committed capital offenses priorto their 18th birthdays, are now subject to “absolute” sentences, includingthe death penalty and life in prison without parole.Currently, 38 States authorize the death penalty; 23 of these permit theexecution of offenders who committed capital offenses prior to their18th birthdays.1However, the laws governing application of the deathpenalty in those 23 States vary, and the variation is not necessarily tied torates of juvenile crime. Since 1973, when the death penalty was reinstat-ed, 17 men have been executed for crimes they committed as juveniles(see table 1), and 74 people in the United States currently sit on deathrow for crimes they committed as juveniles (Streib, 2000).Lynn CothernThe appropriateness of the deathpenalty for juveniles is the subject ofintense debate despite SupremeCourt decisions upholding its use.Although nearly half the Statesallow those who commit capitalcrimes as 16- and 17-year-olds tobe sentenced to death, some ques-tion whether this is compatible withthe principles on which our juvenilejustice system was established.This Bulletin examines the historyof capital punishment and SupremeCourt decisions related to its usewith juveniles. It also includes pro-files of those sentenced to death forcrimes committed as juveniles andnotes the international movementtoward abolishing this sanction.I hope that this Bulletin enhancesour understanding of the issuesinvolved in applying the death penal-ty to juveniles so that we may focusour energy and resources on effective and humane responses to juvenile crime and violence.
2Debate about the use of the death penalty for juveniles has grown moreintense in light of calls for the harsher punishment of serious and violentJuveniles and the Death Penalty
John J.WilsonActing Administrator John J. Wilson, Acting AdministratorNovember 2000