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Youth in the Adult Criminal Justice System

Literature Review: A product of the Model Programs Guide
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The origin of the juvenile justice system was guided by the concept of rehabilitation through individualized justice (OJJDP, n.d.; Snyder and Sickmund, 2006; Robinson and Kurlychek, 2019). The juvenile court system is based on the legal principle of parens patriae or “state as parent” (Robinson and Kurlychek, 2019:37; McGowan et al., 2007:S8) and was intended to provide positive social development to youths who may not be receiving this support in their homes or communities. Over the last three decades, states have implemented various legislative changes in response to youths’ crimes, making it easier for them to be prosecuted as adults (OJJDP, n.d.; Kolivoski and Shook, 2016). This trend has contributed to increases in the numbers of youths incarcerated in adult correctional facilities (Loeffler and Grunwald, 2015; Redding, 2010). 

This literature review describes the legal mechanisms by which youths can be processed and incarcerated with adults and provides the most recent data on the number of youths in adult jails and prisons. (For the purposes of this review, juveniles are defined as the population of individuals under age 18 with the potential for or actual contact with the juvenile justice system; youth refers to the general population of individuals under 18.) The review also provides a historical policy overview; discusses outcome evidence for relevant policies; presents the theoretical foundation for sending juveniles to the criminal justice system and incarcerating them with adults; highlights disparities in the transfer of juveniles to adult court; and discusses the impact of these practices and policies on youth. (In this review adult system and criminal court are used interchangeably, as are juvenile system and juvenile court.) Additionally, the review identifies gaps in knowledge and data and offers suggestions for further research.

This section defines the mechanisms by which juveniles are tried and convicted in the adult criminal justice system and the facilities where they can be held. Figure 1 shows which mechanisms states use to impose adult sanctions on youths who commit crimes.

Figure 1. Mechanisms to Impose Adult Sanctions on Youth Charged with a Crime, by State

The upper age of jurisdiction is the oldest age at which a juvenile court has original jurisdiction over an individual for law-violating behavior (Statistical Briefing Book [SBB], 2021). Individual states determine the age cutoff for juvenile court jurisdiction, and the upper age is 17 in most states (SBB, 2021). (For more information on the age limits, see the Model Programs Guide literature review, Age Boundaries of the Juvenile Justice System.)

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 the jurisdiction of the criminal court for trial as an adult. [The criminal court has jurisdiction only over youths who committed law-violating acts that would be criminal (delinquent acts); status offenses are limited strictly to juvenile jurisdiction.] The most common mechanisms used to transfer juveniles to adult court include judicial waiver, statutory exclusion, and direct file (Weston, 2016; Zane et al., 2016).

A judicial waiver is the mechanism whereby a juvenile court judge waives jurisdiction over a case and refers it to criminal court jurisdiction.

Statutory exclusion is a state law mandating that youths who commit certain crimes automatically are processed as adults (Dempsey, 2020; Weston, 2016; Zane et al., 2016).

Prosecutorial direct file as a mechanism of transferal means that the initial decision to bring charges against a minor in juvenile court or adult criminal court rests solely with the prosecutor or district attorney (Weston, 2016; Zane et al., 2016). 

Blended sentences allow certain juveniles who have committed certain offenses to receive both juvenile and adult sentences. The specific requirements, including eligible offenses and age criteria, differ by state (SBB, 2022a). For example, under Texas’ blended sentencing law, 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). 

The once an adult/always an adult policy means that when a “juvenile age” person has been convicted or had sanctions imposed by a criminal court, any future allegations of delinquency involving that individual must be brought before the adult criminal court. As of the end of the 2019 legislative season, 35 states had this policy (SBB, 2022b). 

Juveniles who enter the adult criminal justice system through any of these mechanisms can be held in adult jails and prisons. Jail is a confinement facility that usually is intended for individuals pending arraignment and awaiting trial, conviction, or sentencing or for those with a sentence of 1 year or less. Jails are usually managed by a local law enforcement agency (sheriff, police chief, or county or city administrator), and they are intended for those being processed through criminal court but can also hold individuals being processed through juvenile courts, either before or after adjudication, or juveniles pending their transfer to juvenile authorities (Carson, 2020; Zeng, 2022). Prison is a long-term confinement facility that is managed by a state or the federal government and holds individuals with sentences of more than 1 year imposed by state or federal courts (Carson, 2020). (In this review, adult facilities refers to both adult jails and prisons.)

This section provides data on the number of juveniles transferred to adult court, waived to criminal court, and held in adult jails and prisons.

Transfers/Waivers of Juveniles to Adult Court

All states have procedures for transferring juveniles to adult criminal court for the most serious and violent crimes (Reidy, Sorensen, and Cihan, 2018; Park and Sullivan, 2021). In 2015 an estimated 75,900 juveniles younger than 18 were transferred to adult court in the United States (Dempsey, 2020; Puzzanchera, Sickmund, and Sladky, 2018) through the various transfer mechanisms. In 2019, this estimate was 53,000 juveniles (Puzzanchera, Sickmund, and Hurst, 2021). Notably, this is an estimate based on multiple assumptions and extrapolating from juvenile court waivers, transfer counts from a limited number of states that report, and juvenile court case volumes. Few states publish counts of juveniles transferred to adult courts, and there is no national data collection from which to derive a reliable estimate of the number of juveniles transferred to adult court.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP’s) National Juvenile Court Data Archive compiles national estimates of delinquency cases handled by U.S. courts with juvenile jurisdiction, including waivers from juvenile court to criminal court. In 2020, 2,731 delinquency cases involving individuals ages 17 and younger were waived to criminal court as the result of a waiver hearing in juvenile court. Of the 2,731 total waived cases, 2,537 involved a male juvenile, 194 involved a female juvenile, 825 involved a white juvenile, and 1,490 involved a Black juvenile. Further, of the 2,731 cases waived to criminal court, 1,653 were offense-against-persons cases, 654 were property offense cases, 221 were drug offense cases, and 203 were public order offense cases (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022). However, 2020 was the onset of the COVID–19 pandemic, which may have affected policies, procedures, and data collection activities regarding referrals to and processing of youth by juvenile courts. Further, stay-at-home orders and school closures likely impacted the volume and type of law-violating behavior by youths referred to juvenile court that year (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang, 2022). 

Youth in Adult Jails and Prisons

This section provides the most recent data on the number of youths held in adult jails and prisons. As discussed in the Definitions section, jails and prisons have different operational purposes and detain individuals, including youths, for different reasons. Jails hold individuals with a sentence of 1 year or less; individuals pending arraignment, trial, conviction, or sentencing; and juveniles pending transfer to juvenile authorities (Zeng, 2022). Prisons are intended for longer-term confinement, typically holding individuals with sentences of more than 1 year imposed by state or federal courts (Carson, 2020). 

The number of youths held in adult facilities (that is, adult jails and prisons) has decreased significantly in recent years, in part because of the growing body of research and knowledge about adolescent development and the negative effects of incarcerating youths with adults (e.g., Cauffman et al., 2018; Casey et al., 2020), in addition to declining youth crime rates (SBB, 2022) and the steady decline of U.S. jail populations in general (Zeng and Minton, 2021). Figure 2 depicts the trends over time in the number of youths held in adult facilities. 


Figure 2. Reported Number of Youth Held in the Custody of Adult Jails or Prisons, 2002-2021

 The number of youths incarcerated in all U.S. adult facilities peaked in 2008, when 10,420 youths were incarcerated in both adult jails and prisons (Zeng, Carson, and Kluckow, 2023). From the peak in 2008 to 2021, there was a 78 percent decline in the number of youths held in adult jails and prisons. In 2021, youths made up 0.12 percent of the total incarcerated population of adult jails and prisons (Zeng, Carson, and Kluckow, 2023). Specifically, state and federal adult prisons held 290 youths in 2021 (Zeng, Carson, and Kluckow, 2023), while local jails had custody of 1,960 youths that same year (these jail data are based on a 1-day count of the jail inmate population confined on the last weekday in June, and the prison data are based on a 1-day count of persons in the custody of state or federal correctional facilities as of December 31).

From 2000 to 2021, the number of youths in adult prisons fell 93 percent (SBB, 2023). By the end of 2021, fewer than 300 youths ages 17 and younger were in the custody of state prisons (SBB, 2023). (Custody refers to individuals physically held in state prisons, regardless of sentence length or authority that has jurisdiction.) 

Regional/State Differences. There are regional and state differences in the number of youths held in adult jails. For example, in 2019 (the most recent year in which state-level data of youth under age 18 in adult jails is available), North Carolina held the largest number, with 307 total on a 1-day count at midyear (Zeng and Minton, 2021). In 2019, 670 youths younger than 18 were held as juveniles in local jails and 2,210 youths were held as adults in local jails. Of youths held as adults nationwide, 1,940 were in urban jails and 270 were in rural jails (BJS, 2019). Regionally, the South incarcerated the most youths in local jails in 2019 (1,665 total), followed by the Midwest (343 total), the West (221 total), and the Northeast (195 total) [Zeng and Minton, 2021]. In 2021, Florida held the most youths ages 17 and younger in state prisons, with 48 total (Carson, 2022). 

Demographics. Federal agencies (such as the Bureau of Justice Statistics) track demographic information, including race/ethnicity and gender, for individuals held in adult facilities. Although the information is reported for all individuals held in local jails, it is not broken out by age. Data from 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available) showed that 87 percent of youths younger than 18 newly admitted to state prison that year were male. White individuals younger than 18 accounted for 42 percent of new prison admissions, 39 percent were Black, 17 percent were Hispanic, and 2 percent were of other races/ethnicities (West, 2010; Sickmund and Puzzanchera, 2014). (These data were reported in OJJDP’s Juvenile Offenders and Victims: 2014 National Report; the most recent versions of this report do not include data on youths’ demographic characteristics or on the offenses of youth in adult state prisons.) 

Studies of individual jurisdictions have provided more recent, but limited, demographic information. For example, of 49,479 juveniles (ages 10–18 at first arrest) in the juvenile or adult criminal justice systems in Marion County, IN, from January 1, 1999, to December 31, 2011, Black juveniles accounted for 69 percent of all juveniles transferred to adult courts, and 90 percent of juveniles transferred to adult court were male (Aalsma et al., 2016). Trulson and colleagues (2022) examined a subset of juveniles (n = 202) convicted of serious and violent offenses and adjudicated under Texas’ blended sentencing law, as well as transferred from juvenile detention to adult prison to serve the adult portion of their blended sentences. Of this subsample, 96 percent were male, 48 percent were Black, 37 percent were Hispanic, and 16 percent were white. 

Offense Types. As with information on demographic characteristics, data on the type of offenses committed that resulted in individuals being held in local jails are not broken down by age. 

Among youths younger than 18 who were newly admitted to state prisons in 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available), 71 percent had committed a violent offense, including 7 percent who had committed a homicide and 39 percent who had committed a robbery offense; 19 percent had committed a property offense; nearly 3 percent had committed a drug offense; and 7 percent had committed a public order offense, including 5 percent who committed a weapons offense (Bonczar et al., 2011).

Illinois’ Juvenile Court Act of 1899 established the nation’s first juvenile court (Dempsey, 2020). The court’s goal was to rehabilitate youths rather than punish them. The court was intended to be a place where youths would receive individualized attention and protective supervision. By 1925, all but two states had established some form of juvenile justice services, and by 1945 all states had juvenile courts (Ferdinand, 1991). Juvenile justice practices were primarily a function of state and local jurisdictions. Juvenile court judges traditionally held the power to waive certain juveniles from the juvenile system to the adult system. The decision to transfer often was based solely on the judge’s view of whether a particular juvenile was beyond “rehabilitative repair” or capable of being rehabilitated within the juvenile justice system (Myers, 2003; Tanenhaus, 2000:29; Thomas, 2016; Steiner, 2009:81; Zane, 2017). 

In 1974, Congress enacted the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Act. The legislative objective was to limit the placement of youth in adult facilities (Snyder and Sickmund, 2006; Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, 2022), although “a juvenile who has been transferred, waived, or direct-filed or is otherwise under the jurisdiction of a criminal court does not have to be separated from adult criminal offenders pursuant to the separation requirements of the JJDP Act” (McCarter and Bridges, 2011:171). 

During the 1980s and 1990s, rising crime rates coincided with increased media attention on crime committed by youth, fueling fears of “juvenile superpredators” (DiIulio, 1996). The superpredator theory posited that a small but significant and increasing population of impulsive (often urban) youths were willing to commit violent crimes without remorse (Boghani, 2017). Policymakers in most states responded by advocating for tougher sentences for youth (Benekos and Merlo, 2019). These policies reflected growing support for more serious sentencing options for youths who committed violent offenses and less public tolerance for leniency and treatment-oriented programs for youths who engaged in delinquency, based on the idea that increasing the perceived severity of punishment—consistent with deterrence theory—would reduce youth engagement in crime (Augustyn and McGloin, 2018; Zane, 2017; Circo and Scranton, 2020). (See the section on the Consequences of Juvenile Transfers to Adult Court for more information on deterrence theory). The resulting punitive policies included changes to juvenile waiver and transfer laws (Augustyn and McGloin, 2018). These reforms lowered the minimum age for transfer, increased the number of transfer-eligible offenses, and revised and expanded mechanisms of transfer (Fagan and Zimring, 2000; Redding, 2003; Redding and Mrozoski, 2005). Traditional discretionary waiver decisions by juvenile court judges were augmented with, or replaced almost entirely by, broad statutory exclusion and prosecutorial waiver laws that barred juveniles from the potential benefits of juvenile court (Kurlychek, 2016; Dempsey, 2020). 

Between 1992 and 1997, new laws in 45 states made it easier to transfer juveniles who offended from the juvenile to the criminal justice system; laws in 31 states gave criminal and juvenile courts expanded sentencing options; laws in 47 states modified or removed traditional juvenile court confidentiality provisions by making records and proceedings more open; laws in 22 states increased the role of victims of juvenile crime in the juvenile justice process; and, as a result of new transfer and sentencing laws, juvenile correctional administrators developed more punitive programs such as boot camps for youths who offended and “scared straight” programs for at-risk youth (Lawrence and Hemmens, 2008; Snyder and Sickmund, 2006:96–97). 

In the 1960s, the federal government expanded its role, which previously had been nonexistent, in juvenile justice matters (Lawrence and Hemmens, 2008). The present era of juvenile justice is marked by several Supreme Court decisions (Roper v. Simmons, 2005; Graham v. Florida, 2010; Miller v. Alabama, 2012) that increased protection for youths who offend. In Kent v. United States (1966) the Supreme Court suggested specific factors that courts should consider when deciding which juveniles warranted waiver to adult court—for example, the nature of the alleged offenses, the juvenile’s maturity, and his or her potential for rehabilitation (Murrie et al., 2009). Further, in the Kent decision, the court determined that youths are entitled to the same level of due process while under the juvenile court’s jurisdiction as adults, and that proper investigation is necessary before a juvenile is waived out of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction. Sixteen years later, the Supreme Court in Eddings v. Oklahoma (1982) argued that an individual’s age and mental and emotional development should have been considered, in their decision to reverse the death sentence of a 16-year-old who was tried and convicted in criminal court.Roper v. Simmons (2005) raised the issue of culpability and prohibited the death penalty for youths younger than 18 (Benekos and Merlo, 2019; Cauffman et al., 2018; Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, 2022). In Graham v. Florida (2010), a 16-year-old was tried as an adult after committing armed burglary and attempted armed robbery, among other offenses. He was sentenced to concurrent 3-year terms of probation but was later sentenced to imprisonment without parole for the original burglary after he violated the terms of his probation (Graham v. Florida, 2010). The Supreme Court ruled that the Eight Amendment's Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause does not permit a person under the age of 18 who has offended to be sentenced to life in prison without parole for a crime other than homicide (Casey et al., 2020; Graham v. Florida, 2010). Moreover, the Miller v. Alabama (2012) decision, which involved a 14-year-old juvenile transferred to criminal court in Alabama, deemed mandatory sentences of life without the possibility of parole unconstitutional for youths under the age of 18 convicted of homicide (Benekos and Merlo, 2019; Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, 2022). 

Many of the decisions reached by the Supreme Court were based on research about adolescent development and the acknowledgment that youths should not be processed in the same system or manner as adults because they are different from adults (Cauffman et al., 2018; Casey et al., 2020; McCarter and Bridges, 2011). This research has found that adolescents are still developing neurologically and psychosocially, and that compared with adults they have lower impulse control, are more susceptible to peer influence, and are less likely to consider their actions in context (Steinberg, 2009; National Research Council, 2013; Cohen et al., 2016; Monahan, Steinberg, and Piquero, 2015; Cavanaugh, 2022). (For more information, see the Model Programs Guide literature review, Age Boundaries of the Juvenile Justice System.)

Issues associated with youth in the adult justice system have captured the attention of researchers and policymakers, although states have not made a great deal of effort to reform juvenile transfer laws (Butts and Mitchell, 2000; Zane, Welsh, and Mears, 2016). However, some attempts have been made to change the minimum and maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction. The age of juvenile court jurisdiction may be responsible for the majority of youths who appear in criminal court (Butts and Mitchell, 2000). Unlike juvenile transfer laws, the age of jurisdiction affects all offending youths above the state’s age cutoff for juvenile court jurisdiction (for example, if the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction in a state is 16, then 17-year-olds are automatically sent to adult court, regardless of other factors), while transfer laws usually affect youths who commit certain types of crimes, although no known data are currently available to compare the two populations (Butts and Mitchell, 2000; Cox et al., 2021; Puzzanchera et al., 2018). Conflicts over juvenile transfer and the upper age limit represent differences in thought regarding the culpability and reformability of youths who have offended. Research on adolescent development (discussed under The Role of the Supreme Court in Juvenile Justice) has been a driving force behind more recent state-level reforms to increase the minimum age at which youth must be processed in the adult court (Cauffman et al., 2018; Cohen et al., 2016). (See the Model Programs Guide literature review, Age Boundaries of the Juvenile Justice System, for more information on minimum and maximum ages of jurisdiction.) 

One approach that some states have taken to increase the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction (thus ensuring that youths stay in juvenile court) is the passage of raise-the-age legislation. For example, in 2010, Illinois raised the maximum age from 17 to 18 for misdemeanor offenses (before this, 17-year-olds were prosecuted for misdemeanors in the adult system). Further, in 2015, the state legislature of Illinois passed a bill (HB 37180, 2015) that eliminated automatic transfers to adult court for 15-year-olds and limits the transfer of juveniles ages 16 and 17 to only those who have committed the most serious crimes. 

Other states have also focused on raising the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction. For example, Connecticut passed a law in 2007 to raise the maximum age from 16 to 18, thus expanding juvenile jurisdiction to include 16- and 17-year-olds (Loeffler and Chalfin, 2017; Circo and Scranton, 2020). 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 governor of Louisiana signed the state’s Raise the Age Act into law in 2016, joining 41 other states in including 17-year-olds in juvenile court jurisdiction; however, the law still permits prosecutors to charge them as adults when deemed necessary (Raise the Age Act 501, 2016). In 2018 the Missouri General Assembly raised the juvenile court’s upper age of jurisdiction from 17 to 18 (HCS SB 793, 2018). As of 2021, three states (Michigan, New York, and Vermont) have raised the maximum age of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, meaning that young adults can remain under the purview of juvenile courts until they turn 19. (See the section on the Outcome Evidence for information on evaluation studies examining the effectiveness of raise-the-age legislation). 

Additionally, 28 states (as of 2019) have passed “reverse waiver” laws that permit criminal courts to send juveniles who have been transferred to criminal court back to juvenile court for trial or disposition. Also referred to as “decertification” (Jordan and Myers, 2007), this type of law is considered a “mitigating provision” and allows for more individualized consideration of which juveniles should remain in the juvenile court system (Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, 2022; SBB, 2022c).

Disparities in Juvenile Transfer to Adult Court

The decision to transfer a juvenile to the criminal court system is based on a variety of factors, including amenability to treatment, history with the juvenile justice system, and threat to public safety if released back into the community (Feld, 1981; Podkopacz and Feld, 1996). However, research suggests that these factors may not be the only aspects that court actors (prosecutors, judges) consider when making transfer decisions (Bishop and Frazier, 1996). Research has found that older adolescents, racial/ethnic minorities, and males are more likely than younger adolescents, white juveniles, and females to be waived (Bryson and Peck, 2020; Lehmann, Chiricos, and Bales 2017; Lehmann, 2018; Hockenberry, 2021). 

Bryson and Peck (2020) examined both the individual and combined impact of a youth’s race and gender on judicial waiver decisions, using a sample of transfer-eligible juveniles (n = 56,541) in a northeastern state. All models in the analyses included control variables such as crime severity and prior referrals. The results showed that Black males had the highest likelihood of being judicially waived, followed by white males, and then Black females. White females were most likely to be retained in juvenile court, and older juveniles were more likely to be judicially waived (Bryson and Peck, 2020). Other state-level research has found similar results. While Black males make up 27 percent of all juveniles who enter the juvenile justice system in Florida, they constitute more than half of the juveniles sent to adult courts (Dempsey, 2020; Morales, 2014). Specifically, during 2021–22, Black juveniles constituted 66 percent of all arrested youths transferred to adult court in Florida, while white juveniles constituted 21 percent and Hispanic juveniles constituted 12 percent (Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, 2022). Further, national data from OJJDP’s National Juvenile Court Data Archive showed that, in 2020, offenses-against-person cases involving juvenile males were nearly eight times as likely to be judicially waived to criminal court as cases involving juvenile females (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang 2022). Additionally, the data showed that males accounted for 93 percent of all cases waived from juvenile to criminal court, although they accounted for 73 percent of all delinquency cases formally handled by U.S. courts with juvenile jurisdiction. Further, 53 percent of all cases waived from juvenile to criminal court involved Black juveniles (Sickmund, Sladky, and Kang 2022). 

Disparities in Sentencing Outcomes

Disparities exist not only in decisions to transfer a juvenile to the criminal court system, but also in the severity of their sentences once they are transferred. Using a sample (n = 30,913) of youths ages 17 and younger sentenced in Florida, Lehmann, Chiricos, and Bales (2017) examined whether Black and Hispanic transferred youths were more likely than white transferred youths to be sentenced to prison or jail rather than community supervision, and if they were sentenced to prison or jail, whether Black and Hispanic transferred youths received longer sentences than white transferred youths. Additional analyses also looked at the influence of other factors, such as age, sex, and offense types. The results indicated that Black and Hispanic juveniles who were transferred to criminal court were significantly more likely than white juveniles transferred to criminal court to receive a sentence to jail; Black juveniles had greater odds than white juveniles of receiving a prison sentence; and Black juveniles were given longer prison sentences than white juveniles. Interaction analyses suggested that Black males were sentenced more harshly regardless of age, and the effects of race and ethnicity were influenced by offense type (that is, violent, sex, or drug offenses) [Lehmann, Chiricos, and Bales, 2017]. For example, when looking at sentences to jail compared with sentences to supervision, Black juveniles were more likely than white juveniles to receive a sentence to jail for all offense types, and Hispanic juveniles were more likely than white juveniles to receive a sentence to jail for sex and property offenses. 

In addition to gender and racial and ethnic disparities, evidence suggests that contextual factors (such as the racial/ethnic composition of a community) play an important role in sentencing outcomes of transferred juveniles. Using data on individuals who committed felony offenses and who were sentenced in Florida circuit courts between 1995 and 2006, Lehmann (2019) examined whether certain factors such as juvenile status (i.e., juveniles waived to adult court compared with adults) was associated with a sentence to jail or prison (rather than a sentence to community supervision) as well as with sentence length (if the individual was sentenced to jail or prison). Additional analyses also looked at the impact of race/ethnicity, gender, and the county-level racial/ethnic population composition. The study controlled for a variety of individual- and contextual-level variables including offense type, prior prison commitment, economic disadvantage, and index crime rate. Lehmann (2019) found that transferred juveniles were more likely to receive a prison sentence and receive longer jail sentences, compared with adults, if the juveniles came from counties with a greater minority presence—and especially if minority population growth was observed. For example, for adults in the sample, an increase of 1 percent in the county-level Hispanic population is associated with a 3 percent decrease in the odds of being sentenced to jail, compared with juveniles transferred to adult court (suggesting that juvenile transfers are disadvantaged in sentencing when looking at the percentage of the county population that is Hispanic). Moreover, these effects of the county-level racial/ethnic context were found to be stronger for Black and Hispanic juveniles who offended than for white juveniles who offended (Lehmann, 2019). 

Despite the decline of juvenile transfers in recent years, juveniles are still processed through the adult criminal justice system, held in adult jails, and incarcerated in adult prisons. Transferring juveniles to adult courts can lead to serious negative consequences for them and for society at large (Casey et al., 2020; Augustyn and Loughran, 2017; Lehmann et al., 2018; Zane et al., 2016). 

According to Williams (2020), adult correctional facilities are not designed for youths and can be extremely detrimental to their development, especially for youths who have been seriously affected by adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), resulting in trauma. ACEs are 10 childhood experiences researchers have identified as risk factors for the occurrence of chronic disease in adulthood and risk factors that increase the likelihood of youth delinquency, violence, and juvenile justice system contact (Williams 2020; Evans–Chase 2014; Petruccelli, Davis, and Berman, 2019; Graf et al., 2021). For example, Trulson and colleagues (2022) found that juveniles with a history of trauma (in this context, if the youth had experienced either physical abuse, neglect, emotional abuse, or sexual abuse) had higher rates of violent misconduct in the adult system. Further, youths held in adult facilities do not have as much access to rehabilitation programs and other services, such as mental health, that are generally more available in institutions for juveniles (Farrington, Loeber, and Howell, 2017; McCarter and Bridges, 2011). Research also shows that programming and services in adult prisons do not address the developmental needs of youth (Kolivoski and Shook, 2016).

Justice-Related Consequences

Court actors, such as judges, may perceive juveniles who are transferred to criminal court as “high risk and beyond rehabilitative repair,” in contrast to their young adult counterparts in criminal court (Steiner, 2009:81; Zane, 2017). According to Williams (2020), juveniles who are tried in adult courts are at risk of being treated as adults and of receiving longer and harsher sentences, compared with juveniles tried in juvenile courts for the same offense (Cauffman et al., 2018; Kupchik, Fagan, and Liberman, 2003). Lehmann and colleagues (2018) found that transferred juveniles in Florida were less likely than adults to be incarcerated but are given longer sentences. Under Florida’s Criminal Punishment Code, judges can assign juveniles “split sentences,” which consist of a mitigated sentence to state prison followed by a community supervision term upon release (Bales et al., 2010; Lehmann, 2022). Lehmann (2022) found evidence of a “youth discount,” meaning that juveniles are more likely than adults to receive split sentences. However, the pattern of giving transferred juveniles split sentences is observed even when the guidelines do not recommend a prison sentence—that is, even when a split sentence represents an upward dispositional departure (or harsher penalty). 

Deterrence is the primary theory underlying policies to prosecute and incarcerate youth in the adult system (Redding, 2010; McGowan et al., 2007; Zane, Walsh, and Mears, 2016; Circo and Scranton, 2020). The theory posits that youths will be deterred from committing crimes because they perceive the adult justice system as more severe and punitive than the juvenile system (McGowan et al., 2007; Redding, 2010; McCarter and Bridges, 2011). The theory addresses two types of deterrence: specific and general. Specific deterrence refers to the idea that prosecuting juveniles who have offended in the adult system will lead to reductions in their future offending. General deterrenceposits that trying and sentencing youth in the adult system will deter the general population of youths who may commit an offense from doing so (Redding, 2010; McGowan et al., 2007).

Studies conducted over the last 40 years have examined transfer laws and other mechanisms for prosecuting juveniles in the adult criminal justice system and subsequently incarcerating them in adult facilities, and have found mixed results regarding their deterrent effect on youth crime (McGowan et al., 2007; Augustyn and McGloin, 2018; Circo and Scranton, 2020). Some research has found that transferring juveniles to the adult system has no statistically significant effect on their recidivism (Zane, Welsh, and Mears, 2016), while other research has found evidence for both higher rearrest rates and lower reoffending rates in transferred juveniles (McGowan et al., 2007). For example, Redding (2010) reviewed studies investigating the general and specific deterrent effects of transferring juveniles to adult criminal court. Overall, the author found inconsistent and mixed results. Across six published studies examining the specific deterrent effects of laws allowing transfer from juvenile to criminal court, findings suggested that juveniles tried in adult criminal court generally had higher recidivism rates, compared with juveniles adjudicated in juvenile court. However, one study found that juveniles prosecuted in criminal court had a lower likelihood of rearrest for drug offenses, compared with juveniles adjudicated in juvenile court. The research on general deterrence was more mixed, with five of the six reviewed studies finding no evidence that state transfer laws reduce youth engagement in crime. One study found decreases in youth crime (as measured by arrest rates for violent crime) as youths reached the age of criminal responsibility, but only in states where the juvenile and criminal justice systems differed in severity of punishment (or punitiveness, defined as the ratio of the number of incarcerated individuals to the number of total individuals who had committed an offense in each state system for different age groups).

Further, Zimring and Rushin (2013) examined the deterrent effect of state legislation that resulted in more punitive responses toward youths who commit crimes. They compared the change in the juvenile homicide rate over time (1980–2009) with the change in the homicide rate over time for young adults (18–24 years old) who were unaffected by legislation that increased the punitiveness of the juvenile justice system (for example, that expanded juvenile eligibility for adult court, expanded sentencing authority in juvenile court, or removed some confidentiality protections from juvenile proceedings). They found that the changes in juvenile homicide rates were statistically significantly similar to the changes in young adult homicide rates, despite legislation in most states in the 1990s targeting juveniles who had offended. In other words, there was no unique decline in the juvenile homicide rate after the passage of punitive juvenile justice system legislation, compared with the young adult homicide rate. Overall, there was little evidence that punitive legislation deterred youth from offending (Zimring and Rushin, 2013).

McGowan and colleagues (2007) conducted a systematic review of general and specific deterrence studies examining violent crime rates of juveniles transferred to the jurisdiction of the adult criminal justice system. Across the six studies that examined specific deterrence (juveniles transferred to the adult justice system, compared with juveniles retained in the juvenile system), which had follow-up periods ranging from 18 months to 6 years, only one found evidence that transferring juveniles to the adult system deterred either violent or other reoffending; one found no effects; and four found that transferred juveniles committed more subsequent violent and total crime than those retained in the juvenile system. Overall, transferred juveniles were roughly 33.7 percent more likely to be rearrested for a violent or other crime than were juveniles retained in the juvenile justice system. McGowan and colleagues (2007) also found mixed evidence regarding general deterrence across three studies that evaluated the effects of changes to a state’s transfer laws on the incidence of violent offenses among the general population of youths under age 18. One study reported no effects, one reported mixed effects, and one reported a counter deterrent effect. Augustyn and McGloin (2018) also examined recidivism by tracking the monthly arrest rate from age 19 onward in a subset of juveniles from the Pathways to Desistance study who were waived to criminal court and incapacitated in an adult facility (“waived and incapacitated”) for at least 3 days in any given month before age 18. The authors found that individuals who were waived and incapacitated in an adult facility had slightly higher recidivism rates (more arrests), compared with individuals who were retained by the juvenile justice system and detained in a juvenile facility. However, the results were not statistically significant (Augustyn and McGloin, 2018).

Although the evidence is mixed, research overall indicates that many juveniles who are transferred to adult criminal court and incarcerated in adult facilities have continued justice system involvement into their adult years (McGowan et al., 2007; Augustyn and McGloin, 2018).

Institutional Misconduct

Youths and young adults in adult prisons tend to be involved in institutional misconduct at higher rates than older individuals in prison (Park and Sullivan, 2021; Trulson et al., 2022). This tendency may be explained by the fact that they are developmentally different from adults, and they react differently to prison environments as a result (Kolivoski and Shook, 2016). Trulson and colleagues (2022) examined violent assaultive misconduct in a sample of juveniles who had committed serious and violent offenses and were sentenced under Texas’ blended sentencing law (that is, juveniles who started their sentences in a juvenile facility and were then transferred to an adult facility to serve that portion of their blended sentence). They found that juveniles who were immediately transferred from a state juvenile facility to adult prison exhibited a statistically significant higher rate of misconduct during their first stay in an adult prison, compared with “delayed arrival” juveniles (i.e., those who were released from juvenile confinement to the community, but ended up in adult prison because of a technical violation or a new offense). Juveniles who had the highest rates of violent misconduct in juvenile facilities also were more likely to engage in violent misconduct in adult facilities (Trulson et al., 2022). Park and Sullivan (2021) also examined behavior problems within correctional settings and found that juveniles in an adult prison had statistically significant higher rates of general involvement in institutional misconduct, compared with juveniles in a juvenile facility. Additionally, in a sample of individuals ages 17 and younger at time of admission to an adult correctional facility in Florida, Kuanliang, Sorensen, and Cunningham (2008) found that for each type of misconduct examined (fighting, rioting, robbery, weapon possession, threatening an officer, and assault with or without a weapon), both the prevalence and frequency among youth inmates was higher than that of comparable inmates who were at least 18 at time of admission. Finally, Kolivoski and Shook (2016) examined the relationship between age and prison misconduct in a sample of Michigan juveniles in an adult facility and found that the younger the individual was at the time of commitment, the more misconducts they accumulated.

Mental and Physical Health Consequences

Studies have found that incarceration in adult facilities can make a negative impact on mental health and access to needed mental health services for youths younger than 18. Mental health services usually are more accessible in juvenile facilities than in adult facilities (McCarter and Bridges, 2011). Ng and colleagues (2011) examined depression as a result of incarceration in adult prisons in Michigan and found that youths placed in adult incarceration had a higher likelihood of depression, compared with all the other groups (including comparable juveniles incarcerated in juvenile facilities), after controlling for the other factors that might predicate depression. Research has also found that youths incarcerated in adult facilities have higher scores (indicating greater distress or treatment needs) on various subscales of the Massachusetts Youth Screening Instrument–Version 2—including alcohol/drug use, angry-irritable, depressed-anxious, somatic complaints, suicide ideation, and thought disturbance—compared with juveniles detained in juvenile facilities (Murrie et al., 2009). Further, mental health issues can negatively affect correctional outcomes; Kolivoski and Shook (2016) found that youths with a known mental health issue accumulated 35 percent more total misconducts in a Michigan adult prison, compared with youths without known mental health issues.

Research also found that incarceration in adult facilities is associated with serious detrimental impacts on physical health, including early mortality. Silver, Semenza, and Nedelec (2023) examined the effect of incarcerating youth in adult correctional facilities. They found that roughly 8 percent of youths incarcerated in adult correctional facilities were likely to die by age 39, while only 5 percent of youths arrested before age 18 and just over 2 percent of youths without any legal system contact before age 18 were likely to die by age 39. These findings suggest that contact with the legal system as a youth, especially incarceration in adult facilities, was associated with an increased risk of death before age 40. Additionally, Aalsma and colleagues (2016) investigated how early mortality varied in a sample of youth based on race, gender, and the severity of justice system involvement. More specifically, they examined the criminal and death records of 49,479 youths (ages 10–18 at first arrest) who had committed an offense and were involved in the juvenile or adult justice systems in Marion County, IN, from 1999 to 2011. They found that of the 518 youths within the sample who died during the studied timeframe, the majority were Black (56 percent) and male (83.8 percent). The most common age of death was between 19 and 21 years (29.3 percent). Youths transferred to adult court (meaning they were excluded from processing in the juvenile justice system and tried in adult court because of the seriousness of their alleged offenses) were more likely to die, compared with detained juveniles (who were held in juvenile detention centers for an average of 2 weeks, most often pre-adjudication or pre-disposition). Overall, their findings suggested that the severity of criminal justice involvement is a strong indicator of early mortality among youths who have offended.

Juvenile transfer to adult court is a well-known crime-control response in juvenile justice. But rigorous program evaluations, such as randomized controlled trials, of this state legislative action is limited. The following programs and practice, which are featured in the Model Programs Guide, provide a brief overview of how juvenile transfer has been implemented and evaluated in the United States.

Before the mid-1990s, Pennsylvania’s Juvenile Act (Pennsylvania Juvenile Court Judges’ Commission, 1992: Section 6355) allowed judges to waive juveniles to adult court based on their perceptions of treatment amenability within the juvenile system. In response to increasing youth violence in Pennsylvania during the mid-1990s, state legislators modified their juvenile code. Revisions to the Commonwealth’s Juvenile Act excluded from juvenile courts any juveniles between the ages of 15 and 18 who were charged with murder or a violent offense (rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated assault, robbery, robbery of a motor vehicle, aggravated indecent assault, kidnapping, voluntary manslaughter, or an attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit any of these offenses) and used a deadly weapon during the offense. Additionally, the Act excluded any juveniles who had been previously adjudicated delinquent in juvenile court for any of the aforementioned offenses, except aggravated assault. However, the revised code allows for all excluded cases to be transferred back to juvenile court if the youth being charged establishes, by a preponderance of the evidence, that a reverse waiver will serve the public interest. The impact of transferring juveniles charged with violent offenses to adult courts in Pennsylvania was evaluated, with inconsistent results. Although the findings of a study by Myers (2003) suggested that transferring juveniles to adult courts could statistically significantly increase their likelihood of recidivating, the results from a later study by Jordan (2012) suggested that juveniles transferred to adult courts had lower recidivism rates compared with those processed in juvenile courts (a statistically significant difference).

Zane, Welsh, and Mears (2016) conducted a meta-analysis that aggregated the results from nine studies (including those discussed above by Myers [2003] and Jordan [2012]) assessing the specific deterrent effect of  juvenile transfer to adult court. All studies took place in the United States, with two samples based in New York and New Jersey, two in Florida, and two in Pennsylvania. The sample size of the treatment group (transferred juveniles or juveniles prosecuted in adult court) was 6,150, and the sample size of the comparison group (juveniles who were adjudicated in juvenile court) was 6,175. The ages of juveniles included in the studies ranged from 14 to 17. Five of the nine studies in the meta-analysis reported an increase in recidivism for juveniles transferred to adult court, compared with juveniles who were not transferred; however, the aggregate effect across studies was small and not statistically significant.

Several studies have examined the impact of states’ efforts to increase the age of juvenile court jurisdiction. For example, Loeffler and Grunwald (2015) examined the impact on juvenile recidivism after Illinois raised the age of majority from 17 to 18 for misdemeanor offenses. The change in the age of majority had no statistically significant effect on recidivism when juveniles were processed by the juvenile courts. The finding suggested that, although changing the age of majority in Illinois did not reduce juveniles’ risk of recidivism, it also did not increase their likelihood of recidivism and threat to public safety. In addition, three studies have examined the impact of the raise-the-age legislation in Connecticut, with mixed results. For example, Loeffler and Chalfin (2017) examined the impact of the legislation and found 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 committed predominately by juveniles). Their analysis found no statistically significant effect on rates of motor vehicle theft after the age of jurisdiction was changed. Conversely, Robinson and Kurlychek (2019) examined the effect of the legislation and found that 2-year recidivism rates of the 17-year-olds who remained in juvenile court after the policy change were slightly greater than the recidivism rate of the 17-year-olds who were processed in adult court before the policy change.

Several gaps exist in the research on juveniles transferred to the adult court system. For instance, owing to data collection limitations, the number of juveniles processed through criminal court nationally is unknown (Puzzanchera, Sickmund, and Sladky, 2018; Puzzanchera, Sickmund, and Hurst, 2021). The National Juvenile Court Data Archive collects juvenile court data on judicial waivers; however, there are no national data currently available on juveniles transferred to criminal courts through statutory exclusions and prosecutorial discretion. With 11 exceptions (Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington), states do not publish counts of juveniles transferred by these mechanisms (Puzzanchera, Sickmund, and Hurst, 2021). The most recent national estimate of the number of juvenile transfers was reported in 2019 and was extrapolated from a) the data on juvenile waivers, b) the 11 states that report counts of juveniles transferred by statutory exclusion and prosecutorial direct file, and c) juvenile court case records (Puzzanchera, Sickmund, and Hurst, 2021). Additional research on the different transfer mechanisms—especially those that lack clear and specific guidelines, such as direct file—could produce important findings, including more nuanced information on the disproportionate use of transfer mechanisms for certain juveniles (Thomas, 2016). 

Moreover, numerous federal sources track characteristics of individuals in adult correctional facilities, by most serious offense types and by race/ethnicity, but these data are not disaggregated by age. Although detailed information exists about youth in juvenile residential placement (Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, 2022) and previous reporting provided characteristics and offense information about youth in adult prisons (Bonczar et al. 2011; West, 2010; Sickmund and Puzzanchera, 2014), demographic and offense information disaggregated by age is currently not reported at the federal level.

In addition, few studies published since 2015 address the risk and protective factors associated with transfer to adult court. Further, most research in this area concentrates on disparities in terms of demographic characteristics such as gender and race/ethnicity, with limited research focusing on geographic and contextual risk factors (Bryson and Peck, 2020; Lehmann, Chiricos, and Bales, 2017; Lehmann, 2018; Lehmann, 2019; Hockenberry, 2021).

Research has been conducted on the deterrent effect of incarcerating youth in the adult system, but the results are mixed. Youths’ experiences in adult facilities may actually have an adverse effect, in that greater exposure to adults who have offended may normalize criminal behavior (Redding, 2010; Kuanliang, Sorensen, and Cunningham, 2008; Augustyn and McGloin, 2018). Further, for the transfer of juveniles to the adult system to be an effective deterrent to crime, youths need to be aware of these more punitive laws and policies that will prosecute them in criminal court (Redding, 2010). Recent research examining youths’ knowledge of such laws is limited.

Finally, research and reporting exist on youths’ offending and their involvement in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. However, the financial costs of transferring juveniles to the adult criminal system, compared with retaining them in the juvenile system, have not been extensively researched (McGowan et al., 2007).

Historically, increases in youth crime have led to policies that caused more youths younger than 18 to enter the adult criminal justice system. Recent declines in youth arrest rates for violent crimes (Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, 2022), combined with increased research on adolescent development and research highlighting the negative effects of incarcerating youth in adult facilities (including the stigma of a public criminal record [Augustyn and McGloin, 2018]) have inspired state-level reform efforts (Cauffman et al., 2018; Benekos and Merlo, 2019; Casey et al., 2020) that have decreased the number of juveniles transferred to adult court (Zeng, Carson, and Kluckow, 2023). 

Overall, research indicates that adolescent brain development and maturation continue well into young adulthood, with no defined age determining the full maturation of neurological and psychological capacities (Casey et al., 2020; Casey et al., 2022). This research has attributed youths’ problem behaviors, such as delinquency and criminal activity, to their developmental immaturity (Monahan, Steinberg, and Piquero, 2015). While state-level mechanisms remain in place to impose adult sanctions on youth in certain circumstances, the aforementioned reform efforts and mitigating provisions (such as reverse waiver and blended sentencing [Puzzanchera, Hockenberry, and Sickmund, 2022; SBB, 2022c]) support two important goals of the juvenile justice system: rehabilitation and individualized justice (OJJDP, n.d.). 

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Suggested Reference: Development Services Group, Inc. 2024. “Youth in the Adult Criminal 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/youth-in-the-adult-criminal-justice-system 

Prepared by Development Services Group, Inc., under Contract Number: 47QRAA20D002V. 

Last Update: March 2024