Two assumptions are behind recent legislation passed in many U.S. states
which make it easier to try juvenile offenders as adults.
Although there has not been extensive research into the deterrent effects of
the stricter laws, the evidence that does exist indicates that deterrent
effects are minimal or nonexistent, and that, in fact, trying juveniles in
criminal court may actually result in higher rates of reoffending.
- Young offenders will receive sentences in the adult criminal system which
are harsher and more proportional to their crimes.
- The threat of this harsher punishment will result in lowered juvenile crime
To date, there's no extensive research comparing the lengths of prison
sentences received by juveniles convicted in criminal court with those who
remained in the juvenile system. What research exists indicates that juveniles
convicted in criminal court, particularly serious and violent offenders, are
more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer sentences than juveniles
retained in the juvenile system. Despite this, however, they often actually
serve only a fraction of the sentences imposed, in many cases less time than
they would have served in a juvenile facility.
A 1996 Texas study found that juveniles sentenced in adult court did receive
longer terms than they would have received in juvenile court. However, for all
offenses except rape, the average prison time actually served was only about 27
percent of the sentence imposed, in some cases shorter than the possible
sentence length in a juvenile facility.
In a study of the sentences received by youth offenders in New York and New
Jersey, researcher Jeffrey Fagan came to similar conclusions. He found that
adolescents transferred to criminal court were more likely to be convicted and
sentenced to periods of incarceration than those adjudicated in the juvenile
system. However, all juveniles sentenced to incarceration received nearly
identical sentence length, regardless of whether they were tried in the
criminal or the juvenile system.
To date, only two studies have examined whether stricter transfer laws result
in lowered juvenile crime rates. Both found that there was no evidence to
support that the laws had the intended effect.
Criminologists Simon Singer and David McDowell evaluated the effects of New
York's Juvenile Offender Law on the rate of serious juvenile crime. This
landmark piece of legislation was passed in 1978, and lowered the age of
criminal court jurisdiction to thirteen for murder, and to fourteen for rape,
robbery, assault, and violent categories of burglary. Singer and McDowell
analyzed juvenile arrest rates in New York for four years prior to the
enactment of the law, and six years after. These rates were compared with those
for control groups of thirteen and fourteen year olds in Philadelphia, and with
slightly older offenders in New York. The researchers found that the threat of
adult criminal sanctions had no effect on the levels of serious juvenile
A later study by social scientists Eric Jensen and Linda Metsger reached a
similar conclusion. They sought to evaluate the deterrent effect of the
transfer statute passed in Idaho in 1981, which required that juveniles charged
with certain serious crimes (murder, attempted murder, robbery, forcible rape,
and mayhem) be tried as adults. They examined arrest rates for five years
before and five years after the passage of the law, and found no evidence that
it had any deterrent effect on the level of juvenile crime in Idaho. The researchers also compared the arrest rates
for the target offenses with those in neighboring states Montana and Wyoming,
which were demographically similar to Idaho, and had in place a discretionary
waiver system similar to the system Idaho had before the new legislation. They
found that juvenile arrests for the offenses targeted by the legislation
actually increased in Idaho, while decreasing in the other two states.
Two recent large-scale studies indicate that juveniles who receive harsher
penalties when tried as adults are not "scared straight." In fact, after their
release, they tend to reoffend sooner and more often than those treated in the
Columbia University researcher Jeffrey Fagan compared15- and 16-year olds
charged with robbery and burglary in four similar communities in New York and
New Jersey. Both states had similar statutes for first- and second-degree
robbery and first-degree burglary. However, in New York, 15 and 16 year olds'
cases originated in criminal court, while in New Jersey they were adjudicated
in juvenile court. The sample consisted of 400 robbery offenders and 400
burglary offenders randomly selected. Fagan examined the recidivism rates of
offenders from each state after their release. He found that while there were
no significant differences in the effects of criminal versus juvenile court
processing for burglary offenders, there were substantial differences in
recidivism among robbery offenders . Seventy-six percent of robbers prosecuted
in criminal court were rearrested, as compared with 67% of those processed in
juvenile court. A significantly higher proportion of the criminal group were
subsequently reincarcerated (56% vs. 41%). And those that did reoffend did so
sooner after their release.
A 1996 Florida study authored by Northeastern University researcher Donna
Bishop also found that juveniles transferred to the criminal system were not
less likely to reoffend, but in fact often had higher rates of recidivism.
This research compared the recidivism rates of 2,738 juvenile offenders
transferred to criminal court in Florida with a matched sample of
nontransferred juveniles. Bishop and her colleagues found that although
juveniles tried as adults were more likely to be incarcerated, and incarcerated
for longer than those who remained in the juvenile system, they also had a
higher recidivism rate. Within two years, they were more likely to reoffend, to
reoffend earlier, to commit more subsequent offenses, and to commit more
serious subsequent offenses than juveniles retained in the juvenile system.
The authors concluded that:
"The findings suggest that transfer made little difference in deterring youths
from reoffending. Adult processing of youths in criminal court actually
increases recidivism rather than [having] any incapacitative effects on crime
control and community protection."
Following the same offenders six years after their initial study, the
researchers again found higher recidivism rates for most juveniles transferred
to criminal court. The exceptions were property felons, who were somewhat less
likely to reoffend than those tried in juvenile court, although those who did
reoffend did so sooner and more often that those tried in juvenile court.
In an overview of all the research on whether the stricter transfer laws are
resulting in harsher sentences and lowered juvenile crime, researcher Donna
Bishop cautions,"Unfortunately, assessments of the extent to which transfer
achieves these dual aims are few and recent."
The little evidence there is, however, does not indicate that the laws are
having the desired effect. And there is some evidence, in fact, that they may
For analysis and discussion of these studies, and other issues involving
juveniles in adult courts, see:
Youth Crime/Adult Time: Is Justice Served?
by Jolanta Juszkiewicz, from the Pretrial Services Resource Center
Juvenile Offenders in Criminal Court and Adult Prison: Examining
by Richard Redding, from Corrections Today, a publication of the
American Corrections Association.
 Eric J. Fritsch, Tory J. Caeti,
and Craig Hemmens, "Spare the Needle But Not the Punishment: The Incarceration
of Waived Youth in Texas Prisons," Crime and Delinquency, vol. 42
(1996), p. 593.
 The Comparative Advantage of Juvenile vs.
Criminal Court Sanctions on Recidivism Among Adolescent Felony Offenders,
Jeffrey Fagan, Law and Policy, Vol. 18 # 1 and 2, Jan/Apr. 1996.
 Singer, Simon I., and David McDowall. 1988.
"Criminalizing Delinquency: The Deterrent Effects of the New York Juvenile
Offender Law." Law and Society Review 22:521-35; cited in "Bishop,
Donna, "Juvenile Offenders in the Adult Criminal System," 27 Crime and
Justice 81 (2000).
 Jensen, Eric L., and Linda K. Metsger. 1994.
"A Test of the Deterrent Effect of Legislative Waiver on Violent Juvenile
Crime." Crime and Delinquency 40:96-104, cited in "Bishop, Donna,
"Juvenile Offenders in the Adult Criminal System," 27 Crime and Justice
 Fagan, Jeffrey, 1996. "The Comparative
Advantage of Juvenile versus Criminal Court Sanctions on Recidivism among
Adolescent Felony Offenders." Law and Policy 18:77-112; cited in
"Bishop, Donna, "Juvenile Offenders in the Adult Criminal System," 27 Crime
and Justice 81 (2000)
 Donna M. Bishop and others, "The Transfer of
Juveniles to Criminal Court: Does It Make a Difference?," Crime and
Delinquency, vol. 42 (1996)
 Winner, L., Lanza-Kaduce, L., Bishop, D.,
and Frazier, C. 1997. The transfer of juveniles to criminal court: Reexamining
recidivism over the long term. Crime and Delinquency 43(4): 548-563.
 "Bishop, Donna, "Juvenile Offenders in the
Adult Criminal System," 27 Crime and Justice 81 (2000)
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