The Decline of the Juvenile Death Penalty: Scientific Evidence of Evolving Norms

Jeffrey Fagan, Columbia Law School
Valerie West


In 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court set aside the death sentence of Christopher Simmons, who was 17 when he was arrested for the murder of Shirley Crook. The Simmons court held that the "evolving standards of decency" embodied in the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of cruel and unusual punishments barred execution of persons who committed capital crimes before their 18th birthday. This decision was based in part on the emerging legislative consensus in the states opposing execution of juvenile offenders and the infrequency with which the death penalty is imposed on juvenile offenders. The State sought a writ of certiorari, and the case is now before the U.S. Supreme Court. This article presents results of analyses of empirical data on the use of the death penalty for adolescent homicide offenders in state courts in the U.S. since 1990. The data show that, since 1994, when death sentences for juvenile offenders peaked, juvenile death sentences have declined significantly. In particular, the decline in juvenile death sentences since 1999 is statistically significant after controlling for the murder rate, the juvenile homicide arrest rate, and the rate of adult death sentences. This downward trend in juvenile death sentences signals that there is an evolving standard in state trial courts opposing the imposition of death sentences on minors who commit capital offenses.