Journal Issue: Juvenile Justice Volume 18 Number 2 Fall 2008
Trying Juveniles as Adults
Racial disparities exist at virtually every stage in the juvenile justice system, but they are particularly striking with respect to the waiver of juveniles to adult court. In his article, Jeffrey Fagan, of Columbia Law School, examines recent efforts to redraw the boundary between the juvenile and criminal justice systems and the findings of studies comparing juveniles who have been tried and sanctioned as adults with those who have committed comparable crimes but are retained in the juvenile justice system. As Fagan notes, juvenile court judges have always had the option of transferring or waiving juveniles to criminal court, so in that sense, the fact that some juveniles are tried as adults is not new. What has changed in recent decades is the increase in the wholesale movement of large numbers of juveniles into the adult system, either because a state lowered the age boundary dividing juvenile and criminal court jurisdiction, because certain offenses and offenders are automatically excluded from the juvenile court and remanded to the criminal court for prosecution, or because wider discretion has been given to prosecutors in making decisions about the venue in which to charge particular crimes. Although, as Fagan notes, it is difficult to obtain precise figures, some recent estimates indicate that between 20 and 25 percent of all juvenile offenders younger than eighteen are prosecuted in adult court, mainly because they reside in states where the jurisdictional boundary is either sixteen or seventeen.
After reviewing the history and extent of adult prosecution of juveniles, Fagan then turns to the main policy question: how effective are transfer laws? According to his review, the evidence is quite clear. Juvenile offending is not lower in states where it is relatively more common to try adolescents as adults, and juveniles who have been tried as adults are no less likely to re-offend than their counterparts who have been tried as juveniles—findings that call into question the wisdom of transferring juveniles to adult court as a means of crime control. Indeed, as Fagan notes, the few empirical studies that have compared juveniles released from adult facilities with matched samples of those released from juvenile facilities find that the former are more likely to re-offend than the latter.