Assessing the "evolving standards of decency:" perceptions of capital punishment for juveniles

Behav Sci Law. 2006;24(2):157-78. doi: 10.1002/bsl.685.


This study examines whether public opinion parallels recent judicial and statutory changes limiting the applicability of capital sentences to offenders younger than 18 years old. Two hundred and thirty-five undergraduate students were administered a vignette of a capital case and asked to render a sentence of death or life in prison without parole. Results revealed that age of the defendant was not a significant predictor of sentence type; participants sentenced 16- and 17-year-old defendants similarly to 18- and 25-year-old defendants. Therefore, public opinion appears inconsistent with legal and legislative changes to abandon the practice of executing juveniles. Findings also suggested that perceived level of the defendant's responsibility and general opinion about capital sentences significantly predicted sentence type; perceptions of greater responsibility were associated with an increased likelihood of a death sentence. However, participants did not perceive differences in responsibility between juvenile and adult defendants. In addition, participants were more comfortable sentencing defendants to death compared with life in prison.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Analysis of Variance
  • Capital Punishment / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Logistic Models
  • Male
  • Mid-Atlantic Region
  • Minors / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Public Opinion*
  • Social Responsibility
  • United States