The Decline of the Juvenile Death Penalty

Contact: Hayley Miller
Columbia Law School
212-854-2604 / [email protected]


Columbia University Scholars to Publish Empirical Evidence of
Emerging National Consensus

New York, NY, October 5, 2004 - In a forthcoming article in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, Columbia University scholars deliver compelling empirical evidence of an emerging societal norm opposing the death penalty for juvenile offenders, which may have a significant impact on Roper v. Simmons, a case before the U.S. Supreme Court this term. This case will mark the first time since 1989 that the constitutionality of the juvenile death penalty has been reviewed.

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 court held that the "evolving standards of decency" embodied in the constitutional 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 an emerging national consensus opposing execution of juvenile offenders: Legislatures have increasingly disallowed death sentences for persons under 18, and even where such sentences are permitted by statute, they are increasingly rarely imposed in practice.

Previous analyses of the declining use of the death penalty against juveniles have not been sufficiently rigorous to determine whether this reflects a rejection of the penalty by juries, judges and prosecutors or is the result of chance or some other factor, such as a fall-off in the number of homicides committed by juveniles. So, Columbia University's Jeffrey Fagan, a professor of law and public health, and Valerie West, a research associate, undertook an exacting statistical analysis of the trend in use of the death penalty for adolescent homicide offenders 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.

"The Decline of the Juvenile Death Penalty: Scientific Evidence of Evolving Norms," by Jeffrey Fagan and Valerie West of Columbia University, will be presented at the Symposium on Actual Innocence at Northwestern University in October and has been accepted for publication in the peer reviewed publication the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology.