Being “Transferred” to Adult Court versus “Aging Out” of Juvenile Court
There are significant differences between states’ treatment of juveniles within their court systems. All states have an “upper age of majority,” by which one is considered eligible for juvenile court jurisdiction. If a juvenile is beyond that age, they are automatically within the jurisdiction of adult criminal court, regardless of the offense charged. This is to be distinguished from cases that can originate in juvenile court but whose jurisdiction can be “waived” to adult criminal court by judicial waiver, prosecutorial discretion, or statutory rule.
Every state determines at what age an adolescent is no longer considered a “juvenile” and becomes an “adult” for criminal justice purposes. Once the “juvenile” reaches the statutorily defined age and is accused of a crime, that individual will automatically be charged in the adult criminal system. According to Juvenile Justice Geography, Policy Practice & Statistics (GPS) information from 2015, the overwhelming majority of jurisdictions (41 states and the District of Columbia) define age 17 as the highest age that an individual can have a case originate in juvenile court. Juvenile Justice, Geography, Policy, Practice & Statistics, “Jurisdictional Boundaries.” Seven states use age 16 as the upper age for juvenile court jurisdiction (Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin).
In only two states—New York and North Carolina—age 15 is considered the upper age of majority for juvenile court. In these states, if a juvenile is age 16 or 17, and gets charged with any criminal offense, the case is originated and tried in adult criminal court. However, in 2014, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the formation of a state task force to evaluate and design a plan to reform the justice system in New York to raise the age. Jeffrey A. Butts & John K. Roman, Line Drawing: Raising the Minimum Age of Criminal Court Jurisdiction in New York (Feb. 2014). In North Carolina as well, there have been attempts to raise the age in the legislature, though no measures have passed to date. Rose Hoban, “Advocates Try Again to ‘Raise the Age’,” N.C. Health News, Apr. 1 2015.
In addition, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, all states have laws that allow the transfer of a juvenile court case to the adult criminal court, typically under certain circumstances and within certain ages. Thus, the juveniles can be younger than the “age of majority” for juvenile court and still be transferred to adult court. Trying Juveniles as Adults, supra. There are three typical ways that a case can be transferred from juvenile court jurisdiction to adult court: judicial waiver laws, prosecutorial discretion or concurrent jurisdiction laws, and statutory exclusion laws.
Both the Juvenile Justice GPS and report from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention explain that in a judicial waiver, the juvenile court judge has the responsibility of waiving jurisdiction, thereby sending the case to adult court. The judge will evaluate the waiver based on a variety of factors that typically include the juvenile’s age and alleged crime. There are some circumstances where the waiver is presumed, but discretion ultimately rests with the juvenile court judge to make the waiver. Id.; “Jurisdictional Boundaries,” supra . A formal hearing and guidelines are in place to assist the judicial waiver process.
In prosecutorial discretion or concurrent jurisdiction laws, there is a class of cases that could be brought before either a juvenile or adult court. It is typically within the prosecutor’s discretion to determine which court will initiate the criminal charges. Some states have formal standards, but there may not be any statutory standards articulated that a prosecutor must follow when using his or her discretion. “Jurisdictional Boundaries,” supra; Trying Juveniles as Adults, supra . There has been a rise in prosecutorial discretion laws.
With statutory exclusion laws, the legislature has typically granted the adult criminal court exclusive jurisdiction over certain types of cases involving juvenile offenders. When a case falls under one of the statutory exclusion laws, it is mandated that the case be filed in adult court rather than in juvenile court. “Jurisdictional Boundaries,” supra; Trying Juveniles as Adults, supra .
In addition, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s 2011 report found that states may have additional kinds of transfer laws. Some jurisdictions abide by a “once an adult, always an adult” rule, meaning that if a juvenile has been criminally prosecuted as an adult in the past, any future crimes will be automatically filed in adult court rather than juvenile court, regardless of the seriousness of the alleged offense. Trying Juveniles as Adults, supra . Some may have reverse waiver laws that allow juveniles who are charged in adult court to petition that court to have the case transferred to juvenile court; in these cases, the burden is on the juvenile to prove why the case should be transferred to juvenile court. Id. Last, there could be a blended sentence law under which juvenile courts have discretion to impose adult sentences or adult courts have discretion to impose juvenile dispositions. Id.
Impact on Juveniles Sentenced in Adult Criminal Court
The increase in laws that allow more juveniles to be prosecuted in adult court rather than juvenile court was intended to serve as a deterrent for rising youth violent crime. As such, it is important to evaluate what happens to juveniles who go through the adult court system to determine if they are “deterred” from future crime. A comprehensive literature review was completed by the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) School of Law’s Juvenile Justice Project in July 2010 that reviewed the impact of juvenile cases prosecuted in adult court. The report, The Impact of Prosecuting Youth in the Criminal Justice System: A Review of the Literature, ultimately found that there has been little to no deterrent effect on juveniles prosecuted in adult court, and in many states, recidivism rates have actually increased.
Statistics compiled from 15 states revealed that juveniles prosecuted in adult court and released from state prisons were rearrested 82 percent of the time, while their adult counterparts were rearrested 16 percent less. Id. Meanwhile, studies have shown that juveniles prosecuted in juvenile court benefit from the services made available to them through that process, as juvenile institutions provide programs and resources specifically designed for juvenile development. Id. Juveniles in adult court often do not have the opportunity to acquire critical skills, competencies, and experiences that are crucial to their success as adults; rather, they are subject to an environment in which adult criminals become their teachers. Id.
“As a crime control policy, placing more young people in criminal court appears to symbolize toughness more than it actually delivers toughness, and that symbol may have a high price.” Line Drawing, supra. The effects of being “tough on crime” mean that there is likely to be longer delays in the court process, longer time spent in pre-incarceration, exposure of juveniles to adult offenders, problems with controlling prison populations, and denial of needed services to juveniles. Id.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention report evaluated a study of outcomes for juveniles prosecuted in adult court rather than in juvenile court and found that there were counter-deterrent effects of transfer laws. Trying Juveniles as Adults, supra . A summary of six studies found that there was greater overall recidivism for juveniles prosecuted in adult court than juveniles whose crimes “matched” in juvenile court. Id. Juveniles in adult court also recidivated sooner and more frequently. Id. These higher rates of recidivism can be attributed to a variety of reasons, including lack of access to rehabilitative resources in the adult corrections system, problems when housed with adult criminals, and direct and indirect effects of a criminal conviction on the life chances of a juvenile. Id.
The reason that juvenile courts were originally created in the nineteenth century was because society recognized that juveniles did not have the cognitive development that adults had, would benefit more from rehabilitative services to prevent recidivism, and needed more protections. Sociological and political shifting of attitudes caused legislators to believe they needed to be “tough on crime,” and transfers of juveniles to adult court became more frequent. Results of those policies demonstrate that they have failed as recidivism rates for juveniles increased when prosecuted in adult court versus juvenile court.
Reforms need to occur just as swiftly as the reforms to prosecute more juveniles in adult court began, so that the emphasis can shift back to focusing on the best interests of the child when juveniles are charged with crimes. Juveniles need resources to equip them to succeed when they are released from juvenile facilities, rather than face the devastating effects of being housed in adult prison systems. Juveniles should be treated as juveniles in the court justice system, with a focus on rehabilitating rather than simply punishing.