Juvenile Death Sentences

Approved by Council, October 24, 2000
To be reviewed

The United States is one of the few countries in the world that executes juveniles, and, since 1990, it has executed 10 persons for crimes committed prior to age 18. Juveniles constitute approximately 2% of total death penalty sentences, and, as of June, 1999, there were 70 persons on death row for crimes committed at age 16 or 17. With the increasing trend of waiving juvenile offenders to the adult court and imposing harsher sentences than in the past, these numbers can be expected to rise. In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court in Thomson v. Oklahoma decided that the Eighth Amendment prohibited the execution of persons younger than 16 years of age at the time of their crimes. The United States remains the only country in the world that has not yet ratified the UN Convention, Article 37a, which states that "Neither capital punishment nor life imprisonment without possibility of release shall be imposed for offenses committed by persons below eighteen years of age."

Our society recognizes that juveniles differ from adults in their decision-making capacities as reflected in laws regarding voting, driving, access to alcoholic beverages, consent to treatment, and contracting. For the following reasons, special consideration for crimes committed prior to age 18 should be made. Adolescents are cognitively and emotionally less mature than adults. They are less able than adults to consider the consequences of their behavior, they are easily swayed by peers, and they may show poor judgement. We also know that teens who have been victims of abuse or have witnessed violence may show increased levels of emotional arousal and a tendency to overreact to perceived threats. Victims of child abuse and neglect are overrepresented among incarcerated juveniles, including those on death row. Studies of this population consistently demonstrate a high incidence of mental disorders, serious brain injuries, substance abuse, and learning disabilities, which may predispose to aggressive or violent behaviors. In many instances, these juveniles have not received adequate diagnostic assessments or interventions. National statistics also indicate that African-American and Hispanic youth are disproportionately diverted into juvenile correctional facilities and waived to the adult criminal court system.

The pattern of the use of the death penalty indicates discrimination against the poor who do not have equal access to adequate legal representation. The death penalty is associated with an unavoidable risk of error, and its deterrent value has yet to be demonstrated. It is particularly unlikely to deter adolescents from crime, as they tend to live in the present, think of themselves as invincible, and have difficulty contemplating the long-term consequences of their behavior.

The philosophy of the juvenile court has always been rehabilitation. This goal is now made more attainable than ever by improved assessment tools, new effective community-intervention programs, and treatments for underlying psychiatric disorders. However, such efforts are often undermined by the diversion of scarce dollars into incarceration, long sentences, and the death penalty rather than into earlier intervention efforts and strengthening the juvenile justice system so that it can effectively respond to dangerous and/or repeat youth offenders to ensure public safety.

Therefore, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry strongly opposes the imposition of the death penalty for crimes committed as juveniles.