Legal to Sentence Juvenile to Death Penalty?

By Cynthia Hsu, Esq. on September 12, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Is the purpose of the juvenile justice system to punish or rehabilitate? When someone commits a crime when they are only 14 or 15, what punishment should they face? Should the juvenile death penalty even be on the table? Or, should they really spend the rest of their life behind bars - without parole?

Juvenile law has always been different than adult criminal courts. In juvenile courts, records are sealed. Juveniles are also "detained" rather than arrested.

Plus the punishments given to juvenile offenders are also different.

The first major difference in penalties is due to a landmark 2005 Supreme Court case that held: executing a criminal whose crime was committed when he was only 17 was "cruel and unusual punishment" under the Eighth Amendment. As a result, around 72 prisoners across the nation who were on death row for crimes committed when they were juveniles had their sentences reversed.

The Supreme Court in 2010 then struck down a life without parole sentence for a juvenile convicted of a non-homicide crime. The reasoning was similar to the Court's 2005 decision: the punishment constituted "cruel and unusual punishment."

However, this does not mean that a life without parole sentence is unconstitutional for juveniles who are convicted of homicide crimes. And, juveniles can be sentenced to life in prison for non-homicide crimes if they are given the option of parole.

The U.S. has long had harsh punishments for juvenile offenders compared to the rest of the world. After 1990, the only known countries that executed juveniles were Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and the United States (before 2010). Before the Supreme Court made it unconstitutional to execute criminals for juvenile crimes, 22 defendants were executed in the U.S. for crimes committed as juveniles after 1976.

Oftentimes the question turns to whether or not juvenile death penalty and harsh sentences are appropriate. The juvenile justice system takes into account the perpetrator's age. Still, it can a nuanced, difficult area of the law to navigate. If you have any specific questions about criminal punishments for juveniles, consult a criminal defense attorney.

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