Juveniles may be transferred to the criminal court system in one of six assorted methods: judicial waiver by the juvenile court judge, prosecutorial waiver in jurisdictions where the prosecutor has filing discretion, statutory exclusion due to legislation requiring youth of certain ages charged with certain offenses being excluded from juvenile court, legislative action wherein states set an age lower than eighteen years of age as the boundary for criminal court, youth who are no longer subject to parental authority (such as by marriage) are automatically transferred to criminal court but may be referred back to juvenile court, and through blended sentencing wherein juvenile and adult sanctions can be imposed by one court (McGowan et al., 2007). The goal of these assorted transfer mechanisms, aside from holding youth more responsible for offenses committed, lies in the philosophy that stricter punitive sanctions would act as specific and general deterrents by requiring adolescents to be subject to the harsher and more adversarial experiences of criminal court and sentencing. There are, however, significant harms caused by the automatic transfer of large groups of juveniles to the criminal court based on age or offense alone, and research indicates that the theoretical basis for deterrence as a result of transfer results in either no effect on youth via general deterrence, or a negative effect on youth in cases of specific deterrence (McGowan et al., 2007, Fagan, 2008).
McGowan et al. (2007) found that only one of five studies reported any evidence that transfer of juveniles to the adult system deterred either violent or other re-offending, and the other four studies identified a harmful effect in which juveniles transferred to adult court committed more subsequent violent and total crime than retained juveniles. Further supporting these findings, Fagan (2008) reports that rates of juvenile offending are not lower in states where the transfer of juveniles to criminal court is more commonplace than in other states.
With the aforementioned points in mind, turning to an assessment of the risks inherent in the current transfer policies of juvenile offenders may shed light on why transfer policies have had little to no affect on deterring juvenile crime. Perhaps the most significant issue, especially with regards to legislative or prosecutorial methods of transfer wherein the determination for transfer lies solely on age of the offender or offense committed, lies in the transfer of not just those youth whose crimes and reoffending risks merit more punitive sanctions, but also in the transfer of youth who are not chronic or serious offenders or whose risk of reoffending is significantly low, and who are subsequently negatively impacted by their exposure to the criminal court system (Fagan, 2008).
A related issue is the transfer of youth under the age of eighteen years of age, again through legislative action that automatically transfers these youth based on age or offense, into the criminal court system. Empirically supported research has shown that adolescents under the age of sixteen lack the competence to understand and participate in the judicial system and make judgments comparable to adults found incompetent to stand trial (McGowan et al., 2007). Further, Cauffman and Steinberg (2012) report that brain development, especially in those systems responsible for controlling many aspects of social and emotional maturity, continues through late adolescence and into early adulthood. Many states have enacted laws lowering the age of legal responsibility for specific offenses below the aforementioned ages, which results in the immediate wholesale transfer of many offenders who possess traits that reduce culpability and, theoretically, increase potential risk of negative impacts from being transferred into the criminal court system.
From an examination of the above points it seems clear that returning the selection of youth to transfer to criminal court to juvenile court judges would be most prudent, along with defining eligibility for transfer on more criteria than age or offense alone (Fagan, 2008). However, as noted by Kupchik (2003), the differences between the processing of cases between the criminal court and the juvenile court is not as significant as commonly believed, and therefore may not account for the apparent ineffectiveness of transfer policy alone on deterring criminal offenses. In fact, in the analysis of a single court in New York City, Kupchik (2003) found that the same philosophy that guided the creation of the juvenile court was utilized by the criminal court “part” (a separate court designed to exclusively handle youthful offenders but remaining an extension of the adult criminal court) in sentencing offenders.
It is this last piece of data that makes it difficult to answer whether transfer policies should be eliminated, though it is apparent that modifying transfer policies is absolutely necessary in order to promote a socially responsible and just approach to adolescent crime. Fagan (2008) summarily states it best in saying that discretionary transfer, as opposed to wholesale transfer, would minimize harm by limiting the number of adolescents subjected to the criminal court, identify youth whose malleability and proclivity to reform warrants juvenile court intervention, and maintain proportional punishment for offenders whose crimes are too serious to be handled by the juvenile court.
Cauffman, E., & Steinberg, L. (2012). Emerging findings from research on adolescent development and juvenile justice. Victims & Offenders 7: 428-449.
McGowan, A., Hahn, R., Liberman, A., Crosby, A. et al. (2007). Effects on violence of laws and policies facilitating the transfer of juveniles from the juvenile justice system to the adult justice system: A systematic review. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 32: S7–S28.
Fagan, J. (2008). Juvenile crime and criminal justice: resolving border disputes. Future of Children 18: 81-118.
Kupchik, A. (2003). Prosecuting adolescents in criminal court: Criminal or juvenile justice? Social Problems 50: 439-460