Violent Justice: Adult system fails young offenders

State laws that send some individuals under age 18 to trial and prison as adults have achieved the opposite of what the policy’s proponents intended, a new research review concludes. Transferring young people into adult systems yields substantially higher rates of later serious crimes compared with youths handled by juvenile-justice systems.

Moreover, there’s no evidence that shifting some young offenders to the adult-justice system prevents or reduces violence in the general population of children and teenagers.

These findings come from the 14-member Task Force on Community Preventive Services, an independent group funded by federal and private sources. It’s reviewing the effectiveness of various efforts to lessen violence committed by and against youths.

The task force reports that young offenders transferred to the adult system are later arrested for violent and other crimes 34 percent more frequently than are their peers sent to juvenile courts and facilities. The task force compared juveniles charged with comparable offenses. Its report appears in a supplement to the April American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

“Even given problems in the juvenile-justice system, transfer to the adult-justice system produces even worse results,” says epidemiologist and task force member Robert A. Hahn of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

Beginning around 35 years ago, increases in violent juvenile crime spurred many states to modify laws so that young people could be tried as adults for serious crimes. By 2004, 44 states and the District of Columbia permitted judges to transfer juveniles to adult-criminal courts. No national data exist on the number of juvenile offenders prosecuted as adults.

Hahn and his colleagues reviewed studies that had compared subsequent serious offenses by juveniles who had been tried and incarcerated either as juveniles or as adults. The team selected six studies that met its quality criteria. The data included youths who had originally committed serious crimes in Florida, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Washington State, or New York. The studies’ follow-up periods after prison releases ranged from 18 months to 6 years.

The researchers then identified three studies that assessed whether states’ adoptions of transfer laws led to a drop in serious crimes committed by young people. These data came from Idaho, Washington State, and New York. Although transfer policies vary considerably from state to state, available evidence indicates that they are “counterproductive for reducing juvenile violence and enhancing public safety,” the task force concludes.

The increase in criminal offenses among youths transferred to the adult-justice system is “a very robust empirical finding,” says criminologist Jeffrey A. Fagan of Columbia University, who directed one of the studies included in the report. Individuals as young as 15 years old may end up in adult court when charged with certain offenses, such as murder or robbery, Fagan notes.

The task force report illustrates the need to restrict adult-court cases to people over age 18, with rare exceptions, remarks Michael Tonry of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

Many state-run programs for juvenile offenders achieve poor results, although innovative programs can improve behavior, says Peter W. Greenwood, who heads Greenwood and Associates, a juvenile-justice consulting firm in Malibu Lake, Calif. In Florida and Pennsylvania, for instance, teams of professionals provide services and counseling to offenders’ families.

It’s unclear whether state lawmakers will take the new task force report to heart and restrict transfers. “The politics of crime are far behind the science of criminality,” Fagan says.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.