This is FRONTLINE's old website. The content here may be outdated or no longer functioning.

Browse over 300 documentaries
on our current website.

Watch Now
juvenile justice
homefour casesfrom both sidesfacts & stats
does treating kids like adults make a difference?

Two assumptions are behind recent legislation passed in many U.S. states which make it easier to try juvenile offenders as adults.

  • 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 rates.
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.

Do juveniles receive stiffer sentences when they are tried as adults?

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.[1]

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.[2]

Does treating juveniles as adults help reduce crime?

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 crime.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5]

Do kids who receive adult penalties reoffend less often than their peers who
are treated as juveniles?

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 juvenile system.

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.[6]

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."[7]

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.[8]

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."[9] 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 be backfiring.


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 Legal Issues
by by Richard Redding, from Corrections Today, a publication of the American Corrections Association.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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).

[4] 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 81 (2000)

[5] Id.

[6] 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)

[7] Donna M. Bishop and others, "The Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court: Does It Make a Difference?," Crime and Delinquency, vol. 42 (1996)

[8] 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.

[9] "Bishop, Donna, "Juvenile Offenders in the Adult Criminal System," 27 Crime and Justice 81 (2000)

manny · shawn · marquese · jose
from both sides of the bench · facts & stats · related report: little criminals
discussion · synopsis · press · tapes & transcripts · credits
FRONTLINE · wgbh · pbs

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation