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Age Boundaries of the Juvenile Justice System

Literature Review: A product of the Model Programs Guide
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The juvenile justice system has evolved though four periods since the juvenile courts’ creation more than a century ago: the Progressive Era (1899–1960s), the Due-Process Era (1960s and 1970s), the Get-Tough-on-Crime Era (1980s and 1990s), and the contemporary reaffirmation of the Kids-Are-Different Era (2005 to the present) [Luna, 2017; National Research Council, 2013]. The juvenile justice system evolved to hold youths who offend accountable for their actions with the goal of rehabilitating them rather than punishing them with sanctions in the adult criminal justice system (Abrams et al., 2020; National Research Council, 2013). The juvenile court was a result of reform efforts in the late 1800s, after the Society for the Reformation of Juvenile Delinquents reported that adult prisons were not capable of properly addressing the needs of young people (Dempsey, 2021). The first juvenile court was established in Chicago, IL, in 1899 as a means to rehabilitate youths younger than age 16 who were “neglected, dependent, and delinquent” (Dempsey, 2021). Before that time, youths who committed offenses and who were older than age 7 were processed and incarcerated in the same system as adults. The juvenile court system was based on the legal principle of parens patriae or “state as parent” (Robinson and Kurlychek, 2019:37) and was intended to provide positive social development to youths who may not be receiving such support in their homes or communities. 

As the juvenile justice system has continually changed over time, so too have the age boundaries of the juvenile system. Although all states have defined maximum ages (usually 16 or 17) for delinquency or status offenses prosecuted under the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system, most states do not have a minimum age for prosecution SBB, 2021a; SBB, 2021b). The age parameters of the juvenile justice system continue to be modified as legislators are informed by emerging research on adolescent development, which shows that the developmental process continues through young adulthood. Several states have increased their maximum ages to better serve those who offend at a young age and to not require that they face the adult justice system (SBB, 2021c).  

This literature review discusses the age boundaries of the juvenile justice system. The review provides definitions of juveniles, delinquency, status offenses, and other related terms; gives a summary of the lower and upper age limits in the United States; describes common exceptions based on mitigating circumstances or transfer laws; and presents a national perspective on data trends with respect to age in the juvenile justice system. The review also summarizes research related to adolescent developmental science and highlights how that research has affected raise-the-age legislation and recent Supreme Court decisions regarding protections for youths under age 18. Additionally, the review examines outcome evidence on the impact of changing the age boundaries for jurisdiction of juveniles who offend, including attempts at diverting them from the adult court and transfer laws between the juvenile court and adult court systems.

According to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) Statistical Briefing Book Glossary (SBB) and the OJJDP Model Programs Guide (the MPG), a juvenile is defined as an individual who is “at or below the upper age of juvenile or family court jurisdiction” (SBB, 2021d; Development Services Group, Inc., n.d.). Juveniles also include individuals who fall at or under the upper age of a state’s delinquency code jurisdiction (SBB, 2021d). For purposes of this literature review, the term youth is used in reference to the general population of individuals under the age of 18, while the term juvenile is used in reference to the population of individuals under 18 with the potential for or actual contact with the juvenile justice system.

The OJJDP SBB Glossary defines a juvenile court as one “that has jurisdiction over matters involving juveniles.” Each state has its own legislation on handling youths who offend and designates which court maintains jurisdiction (SBB, 2014). Courts with juvenile jurisdiction are not limited to juvenile courts. They also can include family courts and fall under district, superior, or circuit court systems. Juvenile jurisdictions typically oversee cases of delinquency, status offense, abuse or neglect, and family matters such as adoption, termination of parental rights, and emancipation (SBB, 2022b). 

Two primary types of offenses result in involvement in the juvenile justice system: delinquency and status (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2020; Institute of Medicine, 2001). Delinquency offenses are offenses that may result in criminal prosecution if committed by an adult (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2020; Institute of Medicine, 2001). A status offense is a noncriminal act that is considered a law violation only because a youth’s age falls under the upper age of a state’s jurisdiction, and includes truancy, running away from home, violating curfew, underage use of alcohol, and general ungovernability (Development Services Group, 2015). (For more information on status offenses, see the MPG literature review on Status Offenders.)

While the OJJDP SBB does not define the lower age of juvenile court jurisdiction for delinquency or status offenses, the National Juvenile Justice Network (NJJN) describes this as the “bare minimum age at which you can try a child in juvenile court” (NJJN, 2020:3; SBB, 2021e). The OJJDP SBB (2021c) defines the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction as “the oldest age at which a juvenile court has original jurisdiction over an individual for a law-violating behavior.” For example, an upper age of 16 means that the juvenile court loses jurisdiction over youths once they turn 17. The actual age of youths for which they would be subject to the adult court for committing an unlawful offense is referred to as the age of criminal responsibility or age of majority. However, juvenile courts can have extended jurisdiction up to age 20 in cases of abuse, neglect, or dependency issues (SBB, 2021d).  Extended jurisdictions are statutory directives that allow the juvenile court to provide sanctions and services for as long as they are in the best interest of the juvenile; they may be restricted to certain offenses (for example, violent offenses) or juveniles (e.g., habitual offenders, juveniles under correctional commitment) [SBB, 2021c].

Age boundaries determine juvenile court original jurisdiction of youth charged with law-violating behavior that would be criminal if committed by an adult, although cases can be moved to adult court through various transfer mechanisms (National Research Council, 2013; Dempsey 2021). Age boundaries vary across states and are set by statute. More recently, some states have undertaken efforts to change their age boundaries in consideration of advances in research on adolescent development. 

Lower, Upper, and Extended Age Boundaries of States

Some states have modified the lower age boundary for the minimum age of juvenile contact with the juvenile justice system, but a greater number of states have moved toward increasing the upper age boundary to keep older youths in the juvenile justice system rather than having them processed in the adult criminal justice system. 

Lower Age Limits. As of 2019, the juvenile courts in 45 states and the District of Columbia did not have a statutorily set lower age limit for status offenses (the lower limit for status offenses in the remaining 5 states’ juvenile courts ranges from ages 6 to 8), and 31 states (plus the District of Columbia) do not have a lower age for prosecuting delinquency offenses in a juvenile court (the lower limit for delinquency offenses in the remaining 19 states’ juvenile courts ranges from ages 6 to 12) [SBB, 2021a; SBB, 2021e]. This means that 90 percent of states allowed youth of any age to be brought to the juvenile court on a status offense and 60 percent allowed youth of any age to be brought to the juvenile court on a delinquency offense. As of 2020, Utah went from no lower age limit to a lower age limit of 12 years old with exceptions for serious offense (SBB, 2021d). California set the minimum age for prosecution in a juvenile court at 12 years old for serious or violent crimes, allowing for juveniles younger than 12 to receive support through community-based organizations, behavioral health systems, or child welfare systems rather than become part of the juvenile court system (County of Santa Clara Public Defender Office, 2023). For states without statutorily set age limits, some rely on cases law or common law to establish minimum age boundaries for youth to be subject to prosecution. For example, Washington state has no set lower age for delinquency cases but uses criminal code provisions that establish the ages at which youths are considered incapable of committing a crime.

Figure 1 depicts the dispersion of statutorily defined lower age limits for status offenses. Figure 2 shows the dispersion of lower age limits for delinquency across the United States, as of 2019.

Figure 2. Delinquency Lower Age, 2019

Upper Age Limits. The upper age limit for status offense is 17 in every state (including the District of Columbia) except Alabama, where the upper age is 18 (SBB, 2021b; SBB, 2021f). As of 2019, the upper limit for delinquency prosecution in a juvenile court was age 17 in the great majority of states (45 states and the District of Columbia), while 5 states set their upper age limit at age 16 (SBB, 2021b). Since the publication of the OJJDP Statistical Briefing Book (SBB), Alabama and Michigan raised their upper limit to age 18, and Vermont set its upper age at 19 (SBB, 2021b).

Figure 3 depicts the dispersion of upper age limits for status offenses. Figure 4 shows the dispersion of upper age limits for delinquency across the United States, as of 2019.

Figure 3. Status Upper Age, 2019
Figure 4. Delinquency Upper Age, 2019

Extended Jurisdiction. Most juvenile courts have jurisdiction if continuing with juvenile court dispositions, sanctions, and services for youths who are above the upper age of juvenile jurisdiction (excluding restitution, incapacitation, blended sentencing, and participation in specialty courts such as drug courts) [JJGPS, n.d.]. Juvenile courts are especially likely to have extended jurisdiction in cases of abuse, neglect, or dependency issues (SBB, 2021d). As of 2019, the extended age of juvenile court jurisdiction was 20 in the majority of states (33 states and the District of Columbia) [SBB, 2021c]. Two states (Oklahoma and Texas) allow juvenile court jurisdiction up to age 18, three states (Alaska, Mississippi, and North Dakota) allow up to age 19, two states (South Carolina and Vermont) allow up to age 21, two states (Kansas and New York) allow up to age 22, and four states (California, Montana, Oregon, and Wisconsin) allow up to age 24 (SBB, 2021c). Finally, four states (Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, and New Jersey) allow juvenile court jurisdiction for the full term of the disposition order (SBB, 2021c).

Figure 5 depicts the dispersion of ages of extended juvenile court jurisdictions across the United States, as of 2019.

Figure 5. Extended Age of Juvenile Court Jurisdiction, 2019

Exceptions to Age Limits

While official age boundaries establish which youths fall under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court, there are several mechanisms that determine when a juvenile can face criminal penalties and be processed in adult court. Specifically, criteria set by state laws are evaluated to determine whether a juvenile should be transferred to the adult criminal court or, in some instances, be under the jurisdictions of both the juvenile and adult court systems. 

Juvenile Transfer to Adult Court. Transfer laws are statutory exceptions to juvenile jurisdiction that allow or require the youth to be prosecuted in adult court (SBB, 2022b; Dempsey, 2021).

Juvenile transfer is the process of moving a case involving a juvenile (and therefore a delinquency matter) under the original jurisdiction of the juvenile court to criminal court for trial as an adult. The most common mechanisms used to transfer juveniles to adult court are judicial waiver, statutory exclusion, and direct file (Weston, 2016; Zane, Welsh, and Mears, 2016). A judicial waiver is the mechanism whereby a juvenile court judge waives jurisdiction over a case and refers the case to adult criminal court jurisdiction. Most states specify a minimum age and use offense criteria (for example, use of violence, use of weapons, prior offense) to assist in the decision to transfer a juvenile to adult court (SBB, 2022a). Thirty states have statutes that set the minimum age a juvenile can be waived to the adult court between 10 to 16 years of age; the remaining states do not specify a minimum age (SBB, 2022a). Under waiver provisions, all matters must start in the juvenile court before being moved to the adult court (SBB, 2022a). A discretionary waiver permits the judge to waive the juvenile court’s jurisdiction so that the case can be transferred to adult court based on the judge’s own motion and/or at the request of the prosecutor. Presumptive waivers are used in cases when a waiver to adult court is feasible, but the juvenile defense can make an argument to remain in the jurisdiction of the juvenile court. In mandatory waivers, statutes specify circumstances for when a juvenile is to be transferred to the adult court once a judge verifies that the statues conditions are met. Typically, under mandatory waivers, judges will find a juvenile as not responsive to rehabilitation efforts or that the transfer is in the interest of public safety (SBB, 2022a). 

Statutory exclusion is a state law mandating that youths who commit certain crimes automatically be processed as adults regardless of whether they are within the age of juvenile court jurisdiction (Dempsey, 2021; Weston, 2016; Zane, Welsh, and Mears, 2016). Prosecutorial direct file as a mechanism of transferal means that the initial decision to bring charges against a youth in juvenile court or adult criminal court rests solely with the prosecutor or district attorney (Weston, 2016; Zane, Welsh, and Mears, 2016). These exceptions depend on the youth’s age, the offense type, and the youth’s prior court involvement (SBB, 2021d). More information about youth transfers can be found in the MPG literature review on Youth in the Adult Criminal Justice System

Blended Sentencing. Blended sentences allow juveniles who have committed certain offenses to receive both juvenile and adult sentences. The specific requirements differ by state, depending on factors including eligible offenses and age criteria (SBB, 2022b). Under Texas’ blended sentencing law, for example, juveniles are sent to a state juvenile correctional facility until a decision is made either to release them to the community (with or without supervision requirements) or to send them to an adult prison to continue serving the adult portion of their blended sentence (Trulson et al., 2022). In some cases, a blended sentence may offer juveniles the opportunity to avoid the adult sentence if they comply completely with the juvenile sentence, which is served first (Lehmann, 2022; Sewell, 2020). 

National Data Trends by Age

Regardless of the juvenile courts’ legal age limits, all ages are not equally represented. Nationally, most of the juveniles in the juvenile justice system are ages 15 to 17, and children younger than 12 compose a very small percentage (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023; Puzzanchera, Sladky, and Kang, 2023).

Among juvenile court delinquency cases in 2020, 3 percent involved juveniles younger than age 12, representing 15,083 children. Only 5 percent of the delinquency cases involved 12-year-olds, 10 percent involved 13-year-olds, 15 percent involved 14-year-olds, 21 percent involved 15-year-olds, 24 percent involved 16-year-olds, 20 percent involved 17-year-olds, and 3 percent were older than age 17 (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022). In 2020, in five states, 17-year-olds were considered adults and were referred to criminal court (rather than juvenile court), which explains the smaller proportion of 17-year-olds compared with 16-year-olds (Hockenberry and Puzzanchera, 2023).

Over time, the number of cases in juvenile court has decreased for all ages. From 2005 to 2020, the number of delinquency cases declined 69 percent, from more than 1.6 million cases to about 508,000 cases. Each of the age groups saw decreases of at least 60 percent, with the youngest age groups experiencing the greatest declines. From 2005 to 2020, the number of delinquency cases involving juveniles younger than age 12 declined 76 percent, from about 62,000 to 15,100. Cases involving juveniles ages 12 to 15 declined slightly more than 70 percent, while cases involving juveniles 16-year-olds declined 68 percent and cases involving 17-year-olds declined 63 percent. Some youths who are 18 or older are also involved in juvenile court. This age group had the smallest reductions in numbers, dropping from about 36,500 in 2005 to 15,900 in 2020—yet still a decrease of 57 percent (see Figure 6).

Figure 6. Juvenile Delinquency Cases by Age, 2005-20

Examination of national juvenile court case rates, which take into account differences in the numbers of juveniles under juvenile court jurisdiction in the general population by age, continue to demonstrate that youths ages 15, 16, and 17 are the most likely to have delinquency cases in juvenile court. In 2020, 17-year-olds had the highest delinquency case rates (see Figure 7). In 2020, there were 30.5 delinquency cases per 1,000 17-year-olds in juvenile court. Ten-year-olds (the youngest age group) had a delinquency case rate of 0.9 per 1,000, which is 97 percent less than the rate for 17-year-olds.

Figure 7. Delinquency Case Rates by Age, 2020

Similarly, youths ages 15, 16, and 17 are the most likely to have status offense cases in juvenile court. There were 3.3 status offense cases in juvenile court per 1,000 16-year-olds (see Figure 8). This rate is higher than any other age group, and more than twice as high as cases for youths ages 13 and younger. Further, a 16-year-old was about 17 times as likely to be charged with a status offense as a 10-year-old (the youngest age group), whose status offense case rate was 0.2 per 1,000 in 2020.

Figure 8. Status Offense Case Rates by Age, 2020

Research findings over the past two decades have underscored the need for a greater emphasis on adolescent development in policies pertaining to the processing and treating youths and young adults within the justice system, with more consideration for their level of maturity and other relevant factors (National Research Council, 2013; Cauffman et al., 2018; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019). Adolescence is a critical period of growth and development between—and yet distinct from—childhood and adulthood. Compared with adults, adolescents are more sensitive to rewards, social pressures, and peer pressures and have less impulse control and self-management; these factors can influence adolescents to take more risks without necessarily thinking through the consequences of their decisions and actions (Steinberg, 2009; National Research Council, 2013; Cohen et al., 2016; Monahan, Steinberg, and Piquero 2015; Cavanaugh, 2022). Adolescents are more inclined toward risk-taking in part because during adolescence the brain is still developing in areas involving self-control and self-regulation, and the brain may continue to develop even into young adulthood (until an individual is in their mid-20’s) [Cohen et al., 2016; National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019]. 

As these neurobiological changes are occurring, an adolescent also experiences cognitive and psychosocial processes through which their intellect, logic, identity, and sense of agency in life are developed (National Research Council, 2013; Steinberg and Icenogle, 2019). These developmental markers in adolescents can further be affected by harmful and potentially traumatic events that can also make impacts on their development, such as exposure to violence and adverse childhood experiences (Luby, Tillman, and Barch, 2019; van Rooij et al., 2020; Weissman et al., 2020; Williams, 2020). (For more information, see the MPG literature review on Children Exposed to Violence.)

Research indicates that ages from as young as 10 to as old as 24 correspond more closely to an age range of adolescence, based on the continuation of the maturation of neurocognitive functions (Sawyer et al., 2018; Kazemian, 2021). Generally speaking, children younger than 12 have not matured enough to 1) understand competency and capacity as defined by the legal system, and 2) benefit from treatment available through juvenile justice interventions, especially programs that may have been designed for older juveniles (Abrams et al., 2020).

By age 16, adolescents can perform certain critical thinking and cognitive functioning tasks as well as adults, but adolescents are still finding their place in the world in terms of agency, responsibility, perspective, and temperance (for example, thinking before acting, impulse control) [Cauffman, et al., 2018; Icenogle et al., 2019]. Further, adolescents at age 18 can be more impulsive than young adults in their middle to late 20s (Steinberg, 2009). In adolescence, the tendency to engage in sensation-seeking behaviors remains high while the capability to self-regulate remains low; self-regulation continues improving throughout young adulthood (Steinberg, 2017). Therefore, problem behaviors such as delinquency or criminal activity can be a result of the developmental immaturity that characterizes adolescence (Monahan, Steinberg, and Piquero, 2015). Research has found that crime rates for individuals who commit crimes during their youth typically peak around ages 18 to 21; and, generally speaking, these individuals will not continue committing crimes in later adulthood as part of the normative developmental process (Scott, 2000; National Research Council, 2013). For example, research on the age–crime curve indicates that crime rates of youth who engage in criminal behavior generally decrease by a youth’s early 20s (Farrington, 1986; Moffitt, 1993); thus, addressing youth criminal behavior through serious sanctions (such as through the transfer from juvenile to adult court) could affect the desistance process (desistance refers to the ceasing of criminal behavior). As Kazemian (2021:1) explained: “The age–crime curve confirms that most individuals are likely to give up crime during emerging adulthood; in many cases, criminal justice processing during this period may be counterproductive and might delay the process of desistance from crime that would otherwise occur naturally.”

Overall, research on adolescent brain development and maturation suggests that these processes continue well into young adulthood, with no defined age determining full maturation of neurological and psychological capacities (Casey et al., 2020; Casey et al., 2022). Therefore, some states and jurisdictions have begun reconsidering the minimum and maximum ages for the juvenile justice system, and they are implementing policies and practices supporting a more age-appropriate system. For example, as previously mentioned, most states (and the District of Columbia) do not have minimum age requirements for referring youth to juvenile court for status and delinquency offenses. However, some states, such as Utah, have set the lower age limits to 12 (SBB, 2021d), to keep younger youths away from processing in the juvenile justice system, recognizing the limitations in their capabilities and competencies and attempting instead to refer them to community-based support and services. Although the movement to establish a lower age limit has not been uniform across the country (with some states allowing for children as young as 6 to be processed by the juvenile court system), some states have begun to refine the ages of youth who can be referred to court (Menon and McCarter, 2021).

Below are examples of ways that research on adolescent development has influenced efforts by states to reconsider the juvenile justice system’s age jurisdiction, through movements such as “Raise the Age” legislation (Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017; Rempel et al., 2013), and guided Supreme Court decisions on the processing of youth in the juvenile and adult justice systems (Benekos and Merlo, 2019; Casey et al., 2022).

Impact of Adolescent Development Research on Raise-the-Age Legislation

Raise-the-Age reform refers to laws that jurisdictions enact to increase the age of criminal responsibility, thereby expanding the scope of juvenile jurisdiction. The goal of these acts is to prevent youth from entering adult court and thereby avoid the negative effects of incarceration in adult prisons (Circo and Scranton, 2020). Since 2007, 11 states have created legislation to raise the age of criminal responsibility to 18: Connecticut, Illinois, Mississippi, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Louisiana, South Carolina, New York, North Carolina, Missouri, and Michigan. In 2018, Vermont became the first state to raise the age of responsibility to 20 (Menon and McCarter, 2021).

In 2006 and 2007, following a series of lawsuits and investigations during the mid-1990s and early 2000s, the Connecticut legislature considered raising the legal age of majority and including 16- and 17-year-olds in the juvenile court’s jurisdiction (Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017; Circo and Scranton, 2020). Advocates for this change argued that the juvenile justice system provided greater opportunities to access rehabilitative programming, which can be critical to addressing underlying causes of juvenile delinquency. Additionally, the advocates stated that raising the age would assist in reducing the risk of juvenile victimization in the adult system. Conversely, opponents of the legislation argued that including 16- and 17-year-olds who had been arrested in the juvenile justice system would increase risk of victimization for younger adolescents (Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017). In 2007, the law was passed, and the age of juvenile jurisdiction was raised from 16 to 18. In an effort to give the state time to plan, the law went into effect on January 1, 2010, for 16-year-olds, and on July 1, 2012, for 17-year-olds (Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017).

The state of New York offers an example of efforts to increase the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction without passing legislation. In 2011, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman proposed that the way in which 16- and 17-year-olds were treated in the justice system should be altered. On January 17, 2012, New York implemented the Adolescent Diversion Program in nine counties, which established specific courts for 16- and 17-year-olds to divert them from the adult justice system. The judges in these courts receive training in adolescent brain development, trauma, and family dysfunction, which aids them in handling cases and assigning age-appropriate services. These services can include counseling, family mediation, mental health treatment, substance use treatment, educational and vocational training, and community service. The goal of the Adolescent Diversion Program is to reduce the use of conventional criminal penalties and respond with age-appropriate measures without jeopardizing public safety (Rempel et al., 2013). (The impact of this program, and of the Raise-the-Age legislation in Connecticut, on juvenile recidivism outcomes is discussed below under Outcome Evidence.)

Impact of Adolescent Development Research on Supreme Court Rulings

Recent Supreme Court cases relied on evidence from developmental research that illustrates the important differences between adults and adolescents who are still maturing and developing and therefore may not be as culpable for their actions (Steinberg, 2017; Casey et al., 2022).

The earliest case, In re Gault (1967), provided juveniles with the same constitutional rights as adults and required juvenile courts to follow the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause (Benekos and Merlo, 2019). Later, Thompson v. Oklahoma (1988) halted the use of the death penalty on youths who were younger than age 16 at the time of their offense.

The present era of reform is marked by several U.S. Supreme Court decisions (Roper v. Simmons, 2005; Graham v. Florida 2010; Miller v. Alabama, 2012; Montgomery v. Louisiana, 2016) that further expanded protections for youths under age 18 who have committed offenses. These cases mark the evolution of the juvenile justice system from the Get-Tough-on-Crime Era to the Kids-Are-Different Era characterized by consideration for adolescent development (Benekos and Merlo, 2019; Casey et al., 2022). For example, Roper v. Simmons (2005) addressed the use of the death penalty for youth under age 18 as a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s protection against cruel and unusual punishment. The case decisions cited developmental research demonstrating that adolescents are more susceptible to external peer influences and have poor decisionmaking skills, which make them less blameworthy than adults (Benekos and Merlo, 2019; Cauffman et al., 2018). Further case law prohibiting cruel and unusual punishment was set by several cases: Graham v. Florida (2010) [youth under 18 could not be sentenced to life without parole for nonhomicide offenses] and Miller v. Alabama (2012) [mandatory sentences for life without parole for youth under 18 constituted cruel and unusual punishment]. Montgomery v. Louisiana (2016) concurred with Miller v. Alabama (2012) that a mandatory life sentence without parole should not apply to persons convicted of murder committed when under the age of 18 and also ruled that this right should be applied retroactively. In these cases, the court specifically referred to evidence that juveniles are more likely to change their behavior with time and that risk-taking is an effect of still-developing emotion processing and self-regulation (Cauffman et al., 2018; Steinberg and Icenogle, 2019).  

This section provides an overview of research examining the impact of changing the age boundaries for the jurisdiction of the juvenile justice system for youths charged with delinquency offenses, including attempts at diverting juveniles from the adult court, and transfer laws for juveniles between the juvenile court and adult court systems. 

There is a small amount of research on the effects of the minimum-age limits for juvenile court processing and the consequences of contact with the justice system. One study by Malvaso and colleagues (2023) examined youths who come into contact with the juvenile justice system and found that early contact with the juvenile justice system (age 13 and younger) was more harmful than later contact (14 and older) with the system. Specifically, youths who were involved with the juvenile justice system before turning 14 had a higher percentage of in-custody placements and out-of-home care, compared with those who had later contact with the juvenile justice system. Regardless of the early-versus-later timing of juvenile justice system contact, the study found that youths in contact with the justice system experienced social and economic disadvantages, contact with child protective services, and mental health challenges. 

Empirical research from states that have raised the age of majority have overall found no impact on juvenile recidivism rates (Loeffler and Grunwald, 2015; Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017). For example, Loeffler and Chalfin (2017) examined Raise-the-Age legislation in Connecticut (discussed under Impact of Adolescent Development Research on Raise-the-Age Legislation), when the state changed the age of majority from 16 to 17 years old in 2010 and from 17 to 18 years old in 2012 for all but serious offenses. The results showed no statistically significant effect of raising the age on measures of crime and juvenile delinquency. Circo and Scranton (2020) also examined the effect of Connecticut’s legislation, specifically looking at the impact on motor vehicle thefts (a crime predominately committed by youth). Their analysis also found no statistically significant effect on rates of motor vehicle theft after the age of jurisdiction was changed. Further, Loeffler and Grunwald (2015) examined the impact on juvenile recidivism after Illinois raised the criminal age of majority in 2010 from 17 to 18 for misdemeanor offenses. Before 2010, 17-year-olds were prosecuted for misdemeanors in the adult system. But ever since the change in policy, they have been processed in the juvenile court. The study by Loeffler and Grunwald (2015) showed the change in the age of majority had no statistically significant effect on juvenile recidivism when youths were processed by the juvenile courts. Overall, the findings from these studies suggest that, although changing the age of majority does not reduce youths’ risk of recidivism, it also does not increase their risk of recidivism or risk to public safety.

Some evaluations have been conducted on states’ efforts to divert older youth from the adult system using methods besides legislation to change the age of majority. For example, the  Adolescent Diversion Program in New York State (also discussed under Impact of Adolescent Development Research on Raise-the-Age Legislation) sought to divert eligible 16- and 17-year-olds from formal prosecution in the adult criminal court to services aiming to provide a rehabilitative, developmentally appropriate response for the behaviors of older adolescents in the juvenile court system. Services could include individual counseling, family mediation, substance use or mental health treatment, educational or vocational programming, or community service. An evaluation of the program by Rempel and colleagues (2013) found similar rates of recidivism for youths who were diverted through the Adolescent Diversion Program and comparison-group youths (who were not diverted), which suggests that diverting older adolescents from the adult system does not increase the risk of recidivism (although the risk of recidivism was not reduced, either).

Similar research has examined the impact of transferring youths to adult court jurisdiction. Overall, the results of most of these studies have shown little to no deterrent effect. For example, Steiner and Wright (2006) investigated the effects of direct-file transfer laws for youths who commit serious and violent offenses on the arrest rates for such youths across 14 states. The study found that, after implementing the law, nine states saw no statistically significant effects on the arrest rates of these youths. Two other studies, by Myers (2003) and Jordan (2012) looked at the impact of transferring youths charged with serious and violent offenses to adult courts in the state of Pennsylvania. The two separate evaluations of the transfer policy found conflicting results. Myers (2003) found that juveniles transferred to adult courts were more likely to be rearrested postdisposition, compared with juveniles retained in juvenile courts—a statistically significant finding. Alternatively, Jordan (2012) found that juveniles returned to juvenile court (that is, decertified juveniles) were more likely than juveniles transferred to adult court (i.e., nondecertified juveniles) to recidivate, which was also statistically significant. These results indicate that more research is needed to determine whether transferring youth to adult court can make negative impacts on measures of juvenile recidivism.

Similarly, Zane, Welsh, and Mears (2016) conducted a meta-analysis that aggregated the results from nine studies examining the specific deterrence of juvenile transfer to adult courts. The review included studies from Florida, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania and compared transferred juveniles (juveniles prosecuted in adult court) with juveniles who were adjudicated in juvenile court. Although the researchers could not find a statistically significant effect on recidivism, they did find a small nonsignificant effect of an increased odds ratio for recidivism of transferred juveniles, suggesting (as did the 2003 study by Myers) that transfers of juveniles to adult court may cause harm. Five of the nine studies included in the meta-analysis reported an increase in recidivism for juveniles transferred to adult court, compared with juveniles who were not.

Other research supports these findings regarding the impact of juvenile transfer to adult court. An OJJDP Juvenile Justice Bulletin reviewed studies examining the deterrent effects of juvenile transfer laws on measures of delinquency. This report concluded that transfer laws for juveniles to adult court are not a deterrent to delinquency and could potentially increase the likelihood of future offending (Redding, 2010).

The juvenile justice system was designed, in part, to hold youths who offend accountable for their actions with the goal of rehabilitating them rather than punishing them through sanctions in the adult system (Cauffman et al., 2018; National Research Council, 2013). States differ with regard to the minimum and maximum ages for juvenile court jurisdiction and how to best process and treat youth in the most appropriate court setting.

As of 2022, the great majority of states (49 of them plus the District of Columbia) had set 17 as the upper age limit of juvenile court jurisdiction for delinquency or status offenses, while 45 states plus the district of Columbia do not have a lower age limit for status offenses and 31 states plus the District of Columbia do not have a lower age limit for delinquency offenses (SBB, 2021b; SBB, 2021f). The lower age limit for juvenile court set by the remaining states ranges from ages 6 to 12. Exceptions exist for special circumstances and depending on the seriousness of the offense.

Research from the past two decades has illustrated the need to consider factors related to adolescent development in juvenile justice (National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, 2019). Research on adolescent development has been used to increase the maximum ages of jurisdiction for juvenile justice systems in several states (Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017). Further, penalties for youth under age 18 processed in adult court have been limited by a series of Supreme Court decisions in which the Court took into consideration research on youth development when it ruled on matters concerning the treatment of youth in the criminal justice system (Cauffman et al., 2018).

Research has also shown that in some places raising the upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction to at least 18 has not affected youths’ recidivism rates (Circo and Scranton, 2020; Loeffler and Grunwald, 2015; Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017; Zane, Welsh, and Mears, 2016). There is conflicting evidence when it comes to diverting youth away from the adult system, as recidivism rates are neither reduced nor increased (Rempel et al., 2013). Studies on transferring juveniles to adult court have shown mixed effects. Steiner and Wright (2006) found no effects on violence arrest rates of juveniles who were transferred to adult court. However, Myers (2003) found an increase in the likelihood of youth being rearrested after being prosecuted in an adult court. Alternatively, Jordan (2012) found juvenile recidivism was greater with youth who remained in the juvenile court. A meta-analysis on the effectiveness of juvenile transfer laws found no significant differences but noted a high number of studies reporting an increase in recidivism for transferred juveniles (Zane, Welsh, and Mears, 2016).

There are gaps in the current research available on the age boundaries of the juvenile justice system that could be addressed in future research. For example, there has been a focus on examining the impact of raising the maximum age of jurisdiction of juvenile courts, but similar attention has not been given to studying the potential effects of establishing or increasing the minimum age of jurisdiction (Abrams et al., 2020; Cavanaugh, 2022). Future research could also concentrate on other effects of raising the age (minimum or maximum) of juvenile court jurisdiction, such as the impact on educational and vocational outcomes of youths (Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017). Finally, continued research can help expand the understanding of how adolescent development should be taken into consideration when policymakers and practitioners deliberate over the most age-appropriate responses to juvenile delinquency, including the minimum and maximum ages of jurisdiction (National Research Council, 2013).

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Suggested Reference: Development Services Group, Inc. 2024. Age boundaries of the juvenile justice system. Model Programs Guide.  Literature review. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/model-programs-guide/literature-reviews/age-boundaries-of-the-juvenile-justice-system

Prepared by Development Services Group, Inc., under Contract no. 47QRAA20D002V.

Last Update: March 2024