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Background Information March 1999 - Juveniles

Juveniles, Capital Punishment, and Sentencing

The Council's practitioner members have identified the issue of unduly severe sentences for juveniles (capital punishment or life imprisonment without the possibility of parole) as a problem that merits attention. In light of this concern, the practitioner members have prepared a statement on severe sentences for presentation and discussion.


Historians note that the first execution of a condemned American juvenile took place in 1642. In the years from this date until January 1998, a total of 356 persons were executed for crimes committed as juveniles, representing approximately 1.8 percent of all confirmed American executions (Streib, 1998).

The current American death penalty era began in 1972, when the Furman v. Georgia Supreme Court decision struck down all existing death penalty statutes. Sentencing under post-Furman statutes began in 1973, but the constitutionality of those laws was not determined until Gregg v. Georgia (1976), when the Supreme Court reopened the path for executions (Sickmund, 1997).

The special issue of juvenile death sentencing received little attention from the Nation's highest Court until 1982, when the landmark Eddings v. Oklahoma Supreme Court decision reversed the death sentence of a 16- year-old tried as an adult in criminal court. The decision did not, however, expressly prohibit imposition of the death sentence for an offender because he was only 16-years-old at the time of the offense. Age, the court ruled, should be a mitigating factor of great weight when considering the death penalty, acknowledging that adolescents are less mature, less self-disciplined, and less (criminally) responsible than adults. Six years later, in Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988), the Court concluded that the eighth amendment to the Constitution, prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment, prohibited application of the death penalty for persons age 15 or younger at the time of the crime. In the following year, in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989), the Court determined that the eighth amendment does not prohibit the death penalty for crimes committed at age 16 or 17 (Sickmund, 1997; Streib, 1998).

Current Information

In 1998, 38 States and the Federal Government had statutes authorizing the death penalty; 14 jurisdictions remained without the death penalty (Streib, 1998). Of the 39 jurisdictions authorizing death sentences, 14 States and the Federal Government have set 18 as the minimum age for execution. Four States have set age 17 as the minimum, and the remaining 20 States have a minimum age of 16 either by statutory expression or by default pursuant to the Thompson ruling (Snell, 1998; Streib, 1998).


Table 1


Minimum Death Penalty Ages by American Jurisdiction


Age 18
New Jersey*
New Mexico*
New York*
Age 17
New Hampshire*
North Carolina*
Age 16
South Carolina**
South Dakota**

*Express minimum age in statute
**Minimum age required by U.S. Constitution per U.S. Supreme Court in Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988).
Source: Streib, 1998

Between January 1, 1973, and October 1, 1998, 177 juvenile death penalties were imposed on 164 persons, some of whom had their sentences reversed and then reinstated. More than two-thirds of the death sentences were imposed on 17-year-old offenders; the remainder were imposed upon individuals age 15 or 16 at the time of the crime. Of these 177 sentences, 74 (42 percent) remain in force, 12 (7 percent) have resulted in executions, and 91 (51percent) have been reversed. Three juvenile executions took place in 1998, two in Texas and one in Virginia (Streib, 1998).

As noted by Victor Streib (1998), the number of persons sentenced to death who were 17 or younger at the time of arrest increased by 124 percent between 1983 and 1998. Texas and Florida each impose approximately twice as many juvenile death sentences as any of the other jurisdictions. Texas is responsible for more than half (7 of 12) of all juvenile executions since the 1980's.

The next most severe sentence for juveniles is a life sentence without the possibility of parole. Unfortunately, no statistical system exists to reliably count all such sentences, although there are two statistical systems that can provide estimates based upon samples of convicted felons and admissions to State prisons. According to the National Judicial Reporting Program, a statistical series that studies felony convictions in State courts, two juvenile offenders from a large sample were sentenced to life without parole in 1996. Five were sentenced to life plus additional years.

Yet many States do not distinguish in their reporting between life sentences that are imposed with the possibility of parole and those that are imposed without that possibility. In the same sample from the National Judicial Reporting Program, 68 juvenile offenders from these States were sentenced to life imprisonment. Unfortunately, we have no additional information on the parole eligibility of such individuals (personal communication with Patrick Langan, Bureau of Justice Statistics, March 1999).

According to the National Corrections Reporting Program, which captures admissions to State prisons in 38 States, an estimated 16 juvenile offenders were admitted to prison under a sentence of life without parole in 1996. In the same year, an estimated 204 juvenile offenders began serving life sentences (personal communication with Alan Beck, Bureau of Justice Statistics, March 1999).

It is estimated that on any given day, 100-150 U.S. prisoners are serving the sentence of life without parole for a crime committed when they were under the age of 18 (personal communication with Alan Beck, Bureau of Justice Statistics, March 1999).

To Be Discussed at the Meeting

Participants will discuss these issues in the context of a policy statement put forth by practitioner members.


Melissa Sickmund, Howard N. Snyder, and Eileen Poe-Yamagata. (1997) Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 1997 Update on Violence. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Department of Justice. August 1997. NCJ 165703.

Tracy L. Snell. (1998) Capital Punishment 1997. Bureau of Justice Statistics Bulletin. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Department of Justice. December 1998, NCJ 172881.

Victor L. Streib. (1998) The Juvenile Death Penalty Today: Death Sentences and Executions for Juvenile Crimes, January 1973 - October 1998. http://www.law.onu.edu/faculty/streib/juvdeath.pdf.

Contact Information

Allen J. Beck
Chief, Corrections Statistics
Bureau of Justice Statistics
810 7th St. NW.
Washington, DC 20531
202-616-3277 - phone
202-307-5846 - fax
[email protected] - e-mail

Patrick A. Langan
Senior Statistician, Research and Public Policy Issues
Bureau of Justice Statistics
810 7th St. NW.
Washington, DC 20531
202-616-3490 - phone
202-307-5846 - fax
[email protected] - e-mail

Victor L. Streib
Dean and Professor of Law
Claude W. Pettit College of Law
Ohio Northern University
Ada, OH 45810-1599
419-772-2205 - phone
419-772-2318 - fax
[email protected] - e-mail

Date Published: July 8, 2020