OJJDP looked at pretty much every published study that measures the effect of transferring juvenile offenders into adult court, and came to a less-than-Earth-shattering conclusion: Youth in adult lockups go back to jail more often, and faster, than youth who end up in juvenile justice programs for comparable crimes. And in 13 of 14 states examined in one study, juvenile crime stayed constant or went up after a transfer law was introduced (Michigan was the one exception).
The study results are a pretty clear statement that juvenile justice programs are doing a better job than adult systems in preventing youth from turning into lifetime criminals. What the juvenile justice system does not appear to be doing, though, is deterring kids from breaking the law while they're young. The report cites interviews with 37 juveniles in Georgia, each of whom was tried as an adult; all said they thought they would be tried in juvenile court. "I thought that since I'm a juvenile I could do just about anything and just get 6 months if I got caught," one juvenile said.
The comment reminded me of a recent Washington Post column by Courtland Milloy, who interviewed young men in an area of the city that has been besieged by shooters (young and old).
"Everybody knows that young 'uns don't do time," 19-year-old Derrick Wood told Milloy. "That just makes them bolder."
On the other hand, Richard Redding, author of the OJJDP report, finds that the adult system isn't scaring juveniles much either. Deterrence, he says, appears to be far more connected to the likelihood of arrest. In other words, juveniles might think twice if the majority of people they see committing crimes get caught; but not if drug-dealing, robbery and gunplay go unchecked in front of them on a regular basis.