Action Education: Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative

By Stacie Williams

Illustrator: Landov Photography

Photo: Landov Photography

The United States is one of only seven countries in the world that still permit state-sanctioned juvenile executions.

The Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative (JDPI), a coalition based at the University of Illinois-Chicago, believes that juvenile offenders should be spared the death penalty.

In 2002, 78 people faced the death penalty for crimes they had committed as juveniles. Although many of the prisoners were 16 and 17 years old when they committed their crimes, they now range in age from 19 to 42.

On June 24, 2002, the Supreme Court ruled that the execution of mentally ill criminals constituted “cruel and unusual punishment” according to the U.S. Constitution. The court cited scientific evidence showing that the mentally ill are impaired during the decision-making process and cannot understand the impact or the consequences of their crimes.

JDPI organizers believe that juveniles, too, have trouble understanding the results of their actions. “One of our main focuses is adolescent brain development,” said Lauren Adams, Equal Justice Works Fellow and Staff Attorney at the Northwestern University School of Law, who also works with JDPI. “Adolescents do have a diminished ability to control brain functions. They can’t think like adults.”

Independent researchers at the McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., have recently suggested that the adolescent brain does not mature until the very late teens or early 20s. Teens’ thought processes rely more on a part of the brain called the amygdala, which is responsible for reactions, fear, and impulsivity. Under this assumption, teens who commit crimes do not have the same capacity as adults to control their behavior.

JDPI, whose coalition members include the International Justice Project, the Children and Family Justice Institute Center at Northwestern University, and the American Bar Association’s Juvenile Justice Center, had its goals included in a National Education Association (NEA) resolution that specifically “opposes the imposition of the death penalty or life imprisonment without parole on individuals whose offenses were committed prior to age 18.”

Meanwhile, JDPI wants to reach out to educators to organize against the execution of juveniles. “Educators are the people who are primarily seeing these kids. A lot of the kids we’re dealing with when talking about the criminal justice system have been dropped out of the [education] system.”

“We’ve also been looking for ways to get students involved,” Adams said. “Having students write their legislators about this is a great way to get them involved in the political process or a way to get them to look at civics classes a little differently.”

Because the death penalty is an explosive issue, JDPI’s strategy has been to approach it from a “children’s rights” point of view, modeled after the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child and other international treaties. But the coalition also advocates for juveniles who are scheduled to be executed. JDPI has staged protests in Florida, Missouri, South Dakota, Kentucky, Delaware, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Louisiana. When an execution is pending, JDPI members will call governors and legislators around the clock in an attempt to halt it.

In the last two years, state legislatures in Montana, Indiana, New York, and Kansas have passed bills eliminating the death penalty for juveniles or raising the minimum age to 18.

The number of states prohibiting the juvenile death penalty is close to the number of states that prohibit execution of the mentally ill (29 and 30, respectively).

JDPI founder Bill Ayers says it is important for educators and their students to be informed about this issue. “To me, the juvenile death penalty is an extreme expression of an anti-child, anti-family disciplinary approach. It degrades all of society and undermines our efforts to educate children and give them all a decent life.”

For more information on the Juvenile Death Penalty Initiative, contact Bill Ayers or Lauren Adams at 312-996-4508 or see the website at