The controversy surrounding the juvenile death penalty is not new; the courts have struggled with the issue for decades. Meanwhile, psychologists have presented research results on both the capabilities of juveniles and the public’s support for the juvenile death penalty. Although the Supreme Court has not consistently relied on psychological findings, those findings are relevant to the legal debate.
Supreme Court Rulings on Juvenile Death Penalty
In 1988, the U.S. Supreme Court in Thompson v. Oklahoma overturned a death sentence for a 15-year-old offender because it violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. The Court found that the community’s “evolving standards of decency” were incommensurate with the execution of a juvenile. The Court considered four factors: the number of state statutes prohibiting the juvenile death penalty for 15-year-olds, jury sentencing statistics, the opinions of national and international organizations, and the Court’s analysis of whether the juvenile death penalty accomplished the goals and purposes of the punishment.
A year later, the Court reexamined whether the death penalty should be available for 16- or 17-year-olds in Stanford v. Kentucky (1989). This time, the Court failed to find consensus in state statutes and held that the death penalty for these youths was not in violation of the Eighth Amendment. Surprisingly, the Court ignored all other measures of evolving community standards that were considered in Thompson.
Making matters even more confusing, the Court did an about-face in 2005, finding the juvenile death penalty unconstitutional in Roper v. Simmons and determining that the community’s standards of decency had evolved to oppose executing juveniles of any age. Furthermore, relying on psychological research, the Court found that the juvenile death penalty did not satisfy the punishment goals of deterrence and retribution, due in part to juveniles’ immaturity and their inability to make rational judgments that consider the outcomes of committing violent crimes.
Psychologists have contributed to these legal developments in two ways. First, they have conducted polls to measure community support for the juvenile death penalty. Second, they have conducted research testing the development of juveniles.
Public Opinion Research on Juvenile Death Penalty
The Supreme Court has sometimes referred to the results of public opinion polls measuring the “evolving standards” of the community. Polls have shown changing support over time. Although 28% of respondents supported the juvenile death penalty in 1936, only 19% supported the punishment in 1953, and only 11% were supportive in 1957. Surprisingly, a 1965 poll reported 21% support for juvenile executions, despite declining public support for the death penalty in general. Demonstrating even more variability, a 1988 poll showed 44% support and a 1989 poll showed 57% support for juveniles over 16. At the same time, another 1989 poll found 25% to 30% support for executing offenders as young as 14 years. More recently, a 2002 Gallup poll found 31% support for juvenile executions. Exhibiting regional differences, a 1991 poll in the southeastern United States found that 64% supported executing juveniles aged 16 or over and 35% supported executing those under 16. Still, the level of support (83%) for executing adults was much higher.
Support is not uniform, however, as Whites and conservatives are typically more supportive of the death penalty in general than their counterparts. Similarly, participants who are older, male, White, and conservative are more supportive of the juvenile death penalty.
Despite this variability among polls, the trend indicates a general disfavor among respondents especially when it comes to executing juveniles as compared with executing adults. The Roper ruling did not rely on polling results; nevertheless, findings from this research do agree with the Court’s judgment that the juvenile death penalty now does offend the community’s evolving standards of decency.
Research on Juvenile Development
A second line of psychological research argues against executing juveniles because their limited developmental judgment capacities mitigate their culpability. The American Psychological Association filed an amicus brief in the Roper case that referred to research demonstrating that juveniles are biologically, psychosocially, and cognitively less developed than adults. These differences suggest that the death penalty does not fulfill its purposes when the state invokes it against juveniles who commit homicide. It is not possible to deter juveniles from committing homicide if they do not engage in a rational cost-benefit analysis before engaging in violence.
As adolescents progress to adulthood, they develop capabilities, attention, information-processing skills, and memory, which makes them more reasoned decision makers. Some research suggests that older juveniles are similar to adults in their reasoning skills, at least when tested in laboratory settings (e.g., participants imagine how they would react to hypothetical situations). However, critics argue that differences between adult and juvenile judgments are much more likely to emerge in real-world settings than in laboratories.
Some researchers concluded that juveniles’ psychosocial development remains immature even in later adolescence. As a result, juveniles are more susceptible to peer influence, are ineffective in weighing the risks and rewards of their behavior, have difficulties in reasoning about the long-term consequences of behavior, and have a lower capacity for self-management (e.g., impulse control). These deficiencies affect their cost-benefit analysis, leading them to make immature decisions.
A growing body of neuropsychological research has confirmed that juveniles differ from adults in important ways. For instance, recent research has indicated that the areas of the brain that control reasoning (e.g., the prefrontal cortex) are the last to develop. As such, juveniles are less competent than adults, with less-developed capabilities for concentration, control of impulsivity, self-monitoring, and decision making. Because these areas of the brain are underdeveloped, juveniles rely more heavily on the amygdala, the area of the brain that processes emotions. Thus, juveniles are biologically different in ways that may decrease criminal culpability.
In sum, the age at which an offender is legally eligible for the death penalty is 18. At least for now, the legal debate surrounding the juvenile death penalty is settled, due in part to the work of psychologists studying public opinion and the development of cognitive, emotional, and neurological capacities.
- Boots, D. P., Heide, K. M., & Cochran, J. K. (2004). Death penalty support for special offender populations of legally convicted murderers: Juveniles, the mentally retarded and the mentally incompetent. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 22, 223-238.
- Kalbeitzer, R., & Goldstein, N. E. S. (2006). Assessing the “evolving standards of decency”: Perceptions of capital punishment for juveniles. Behavioral Sciences and the Law, 24, 157-178.
- Roper v. Simmons, 543 U.S. 551 (2005).
- Stanford v. Kentucky, 492 U.S. 361 (1989).
- Steinberg, L, & Scott, E. S. (2003). Less guilty by reason of adolescence: Developmental immaturity, diminished responsibility, and the juvenile death penalty. American Psychologist, 58, 1-10.
- Thompson v. Oklahoma, 487 U.S. 815 (1988).