The first juvenile to be tried, found guilty, and executed in America was Thomas Graunger in 1642 (Hale, 1997). However, on 1st of March, 2005, the Supreme Court repealed the death penalty for offenders who committed crimes while underage. The court ruled that such a penalty was cruel and an unusual punishment for juveniles. In the controversial case, Roper v. Simmons, a divided bench of 5-4 in the Supreme Court overruled an earlier decision (Liebman, Fagan & West, 2008). This rendered many state laws as unconstitutional forcing the affected states to reverse earlier sentences on offenders who had been below 18 years during conviction. The main role of the juvenile justice system is to mete justice on juvenile offenders while providing rehabilitation, treatment and other programs aimed at preventing involvement in non-lawful behaviors in future (Mandery, 2011).

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The Death Penalty
Two earlier court cases had set the precedence and laid the foundation for death penalty on juvenile law-breakers. In 1988, the Supreme Court in the case of Thompson v. Oklahoma overturned a death penalty for a convict who had been 15 years old at the time of involvement in the murder. The verdict cited the failure of Oklahoma State to stipulate and define a minimum execution age. In 1989, the Supreme Court, in another case of Stanford v. Kentucky, ruled that it was unconstitutional if a state executed a juvenile under 16 years, but constitutional if the juvenile was between the ages of 16 and 18 (Bassham, 1991). The 16-year minimum age set by the case of Thompson v. Oklahoma has been challenged on several occasions. However, the challenges have not proceeded beyond the court of appeal (Kunerth, 2012).

Juvenile offenders are relatively few in the country. However, people who commit capital offenses as juveniles still face death sentences. The offenders have often been the center of highly politicized debates concerning the legality and constitutionality of these sentences. They have also been references during debates. When determining such cases, public safety and, most importantly, the juvenile justice system’s role as a fair system, should be upheld.

  • Bassham, G. (1991). Rethinking the emerging jurisprudence of juvenile death. Notre Dame
    Journal of Law, Ethics, and Public Policy 5(2):467–501.
  • Hale, R. (1997). A Review of Juvenile Executions in America. Criminology Series. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen Press.