The primary purpose of the juvenile justice system is to hold juvenile offenders accountable for delinquent acts while providing treatment, rehabilitation, and programs designed to prevent recidivism. Juvenile courts have recognized that there are developmental differences between adults and juveniles and advocated appropriate rehabilitative systems. However, with the passage of revised death penalty statutes and the increase in violent crimes, the juvenile justice system has seen a shift toward stronger policies and punishments. More juveniles are seeing their cases transferred to criminal courts. With this change, more youth capital offenders are subject to death penalty sentencing.
Currently, 38 states authorize the death penalty and 23 of these will allow the execution of offenders who committed capital offenses prior to their eighteenth birthdays. In the seventeen years from when the death penalty was reinstated, 17 men were executed for crimes that they committed as juveniles. Currently, 83 people in the United States are on death row for crimes committed as juveniles. Debate about the use of the death penalty for juveniles has grown more intense because of the demand for harsher punishment for serious and violent juvenile offenders and challenges to the death penalty's legality. Proponents see the use of the death penalty as a deterrent against similar crimes or the most appropriate method for punishing certain severe crimes. Opponents believe that there is no deterrent factor, it is inherently cruel and the risk for wrongful conviction is too great. In this paper I will discuss the evolution of the death penalty and its application to juvenile offenders, justifications for sentencing juveniles to death row, and why proponents feel that there are other alternatives.
In Furman v. Georgia (1972), the United States Supreme Court first defended the Constitutionality of the death penalty.