National Center for Youth Law

Press Releases Uncategorized

Victory for NCYL and Other Youth Advocates on Juvenile Death Penalty Ban


March 2, 2005


Tracy Schroth
Director of Communications
(510) 835-8098, x3013


The U.S. Supreme Court’s March 1, 2005 ruling to ban the juvenile death penalty was a major victory for NCYL and other child advocacy groups that have worked for years to abolish the practice.

A long-time active opponent of the juvenile death penalty, NCYL joined about 50 other child advocacy groups in filing an amicus curiae brief urging the Court to ban the practice. The Court found that this country’s rare practice of executing criminal offenders under the age of 18 amounts to “cruel and unusual punishment” and is therefore unconstitutional.

“The Supreme Court decision banning the death penalty for children is a huge step in the right direction,” said NCYL Director John O’Toole. “State-sponsored killing of children is barbaric and has no place in a civilized society.”

NCYL joined the Juvenile Law Center, Children’s Defense Fund, Child Welfare League of America, and other advocacy organizations in filing amicus curiae briefs with the U.S. Supreme Court last July.

NCYL’s brief cited scientific studies showing developmental differences between teens and adults, and pointed to an array of state and federal laws that limit children’s rights in areas like serving in military combat, voting, and marrying. These laws reflect the belief that the decision-making capability of adolescents is limited and that they should not be held to the same standard as adults, the brief argued.

Fifteen other amicus briefs supporting the death penalty ban were filed by a broad cross-section of organizations and individuals, including doctors, medical institutions, religious organizations, and Nobel laureates.

In a 5-4 decision, the Court said the ban was necessary to adhere to the “evolving standards of decency” that determine what the Court views as cruel and unusual punishment. The decision represents a reversal for the Court. In 1990 it upheld the execution of juvenile offenders, rejecting the argument that it violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment. NCYL filed an amicus brief in that case as well.

Writing for the majority in the most recent decision, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who voted to uphold the juvenile death penalty in 1990, said that 30 states now prohibit it, and wrote,”it is fair to say that the United States now stands alone in a world that has turned its face against the juvenile death penalty.”

In fact, since the Court’s 1990 decision, only seven countries outside the U.S. have executed juvenile offenders. All seven, including Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Nigeria, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, have since banned the practice.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision upheld a Missouri Supreme Court ruling in Roper v. Simmons. In that case, defendant Christopher Simmons was a juvenile when he kidnapped and killed a woman in 1993. In August 2003, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned Simmons’ death sentence on the grounds that it violated the Constitution’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment because Simmons was 17 when he committed the crime.

“The Court’s decision is a much-needed reminder that children are different from adults in terms of judgment and maturity, and are, therefore, less culpable,” said NCYL Director O’Toole. “We need a juvenile justice system that reflects those differences.”