Justice Initiates New Study of Juveniles Transferred to Adult Courts

For the first time in more than a decade, the U.S. Department of Justice is attempting to gather data about the least-known group of juvenile offenders: youths who are transferred into the adult criminal court system.  

The Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) is funding research organization Westat Inc. to conduct the Survey of Juveniles Charged in Adult Criminal Courts. How much is learned from the survey depends in large part on what the Justice Department asks, and whether state and local governments can muster the answers.

At a minimum, the survey is expected to produce a valid estimate of how many juveniles are moved into adult courts in the United States, the demographics of those youths, and the charges for which they are arraigned. But a recent study of Baltimore’s transferred youth suggests that further questions loom about what happens after the decision to move a juvenile to the adult system.

Westat was chosen in September for the $500,000 grant and will work with subcontractor the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) on the project. The report probably won’t be published until after the 2012 elections.

How many are there?

The most obvious question to ask is Exactly how many youth are sent to adult court?  There is no credible answer now, either at the state or national level. “There are no systematic national counts of the number of youth who are transferred or waived to criminal court,” said Georgetown professor Jennifer Woolard, in a 2005 paper published by the International Journal for Forensic Mental Health.

Literature of the Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ), the national organization most narrowly focused on the issue of transfers, frequently uses the estimate of between 200,000 and 250,000 juveniles prosecuted every year in adult courts.

But that figure includes juveniles who are tried as adults because the state in which they are charged has an age of jurisdiction below 18. Woolard’s paper estimates that 27,000 youth are transferred from juvenile courts to adult criminal systems each year, based on a survey of prosecutors.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics made two formal attempts to capture information about transfers in the 1990s, one examining data from 1990 to 1994, and the other looking at 1998. The former looked at the nation’s 75 most populous counties, and the latter looked at 40 of the largest urban counties.

The solicitation for the new survey suggests that it will attempt to capture a broader picture of transfers to include what happens in less populated jurisdictions. The sampling strategy “may include a sample of cases” from the 75 largest counties, according to the solicitation, but “the applicant should assume that the sample will include approximately 12,000 cases from 120 jurisdictions.”


What have they (allegedly) done?

In both the 1990-94 and 1998 studies, about two-thirds of juveniles transferred were charged with violent offenses, including murder, rape and certain robbery or assault charges. The 1990-94 data showed 11 percent of those transfers were for murder; in 1998, looking only at urban counties, the figure for murder was just over 5 percent. Drug offense charges, mostly for trafficking, accounted for 15 percent of the nonviolent transfers.

The earlier reports were released during a spike in juvenile crime and political scientist John DiIulio’s infamous prediction of a wave of super-predator teenagers. Scores of states made legislative changes aimed at trying more youth as adults, with the understanding that the laws would send violent youth to prison; “adult time for adult crime” was the popular adage.

Did transfers to adult court become mostly about violent crimes? Very little is known. In Illinois, a law from that era which provided for automatic transfer of most juvenile drug dealers in Chicago to adult court was repealed two years ago. With the elimination of those cases, the proportion of juveniles transferred on violent charges would be expected to rise sharply. The planned new survey could reveal whether the number of transfers for nonviolent offenses went down elsewhere, or whether Illinois was an exception.

What are the demographics?

The apparent high proportion of African-American youth transferred to adult court has garnered perhaps the most study and attention in reports since the release of the earlier BJS documents. Building Blocks for Youth, an advocacy collaboration of several juvenile justice nonprofits during the early 2000s, produced a series of publications focusing on the race factor.  

They found the disparity was widest among youth charged with nonviolent offenses. “Youth Crime/Adult Time,” Building Blocks’ study of 18 large urban counties in 1998, found that 85 percent of transferred drug charges and 74 percent of transferred public order charges (such as weapons possession or drunken driving) were filed against African-American youth.

The new survey could show whether the Justice Department’s entreaties for states to address disproportionate minority contact in their respective systems has had any effect on those  disparities.  

Regarding gender, females made up between 6 percent and 8 percent of the adult court transfers in the 1990s, according to the BJS reports, but overall, they were only 3 percent of juveniles admitted to adult jails and prisons.

“I anticipate that the survey will find that the proportion of transferred juveniles and adult incarcerated girls will have increased significantly,” said Lawanda Ravoira, director of the Center for Girls and Young Women in Jacksonville.

An interesting BJS survey requirement is to include information about “elements of the crime that would cause transfer to adult court or make the matter a candidate for processing in adult systems.” That information could identify, for the first time, how many juveniles are transferred based not because of their actual charges, but because of other factors, such as gang affiliation or the area in which a crime took place (on or around school grounds, for example).              

What happens after transfer?

The survey results could defy conventional wisdom.  

Because of the law-and-order emphasis on making juveniles pay for serious crimes, it would seem to follow that juveniles who go to adult courts get adult-sized sentences. Research from the 1990s backs that up: Two-thirds of transfers were for violent crimes, and juveniles were sentenced to incarceration for those crimes at a higher rate than adults and for a higher average number of years.

But a recent study in Baltimore found that only 30 percent of the city’s transferred juveniles were convicted in adult courts.

A partnership of Baltimore nonprofits called Just Kids followed the cases of 135 juveniles who were transferred to Baltimore city adult courts between January and June of 2009. The findings are counterintuitive to the notion that trying juveniles as adults is a get-tough approach:

  • Thirty-four percent of the 135 juveniles followed by Just Kids were transferred back to juvenile court for adjudication and sentencing. Maryland has automatic and waiver transfer laws, but also allows some of those juveniles to apply for a so-called reverse waiver hearing. Such hearings allow the juvenile’s attorney to argue that the youth is more appropriately handled at the juvenile court level. Seventy-two of the 135 juveniles in the study had a reverse transfer hearing, and 42 of those – 58 percent – were returned to juvenile court.
  • Another 34 percent of the 135 juveniles had charges dismissed by prosecutors.
  • 21 percent of the 135 juveniles were convicted of crimes that yielded sentences of probation , with their incarceration limited to time already serve in adult detention. The final 10 percent were convicted and sent to adult prison.

Many jurisdictions detain youths transferred to adult court in juvenile facilities before trial, but others do what Baltimore does: keep juveniles in a separate wing of the city’s adult jail. Although nearly 70 percent of the 135 cases in the study were later dismissed or sent back to juvenile court, all 135 juveniles who were transferred spent an average of six months in the city’s adult jail, which CFYJ President Liz Ryan described as “scary.” The Baltimore City Jail, built of stone and about 140 years  old, “looks like it should have a moat around it,” Ryan said.

The report based on juveniles transferred to adult court in Baltimore, which has entrenched juvenile crime problems, may not truly represent the whole county. But it addresses the broader question of adult court transfers: How many of these juveniles actually see their cases end in adult court?

“We have to make sure the data captures that,” said Neelum Arya, policy and research director for CFYJ. “Is Baltimore an aberration, or the norm?”

Another point of interest, Arya said, will be determining how many juveniles “come in with one charge and leave with another.”

For example, some states allow for (or mandate) the transfer of juveniles who have been accused of first-degree robbery, but not juveniles accused of second-degree robbery. So if the juvenile is arraigned for first-degree robbery, but ultimately pleads guilty to second-degree robbery, he is guilty of an adult crime, even though a juvenile initially charged with that crime would be handled in the juvenile system.

Anti-transfer advocates such as Arya and Ryan suspect that prosecutors file initial charges that are more serious than they can prosecute successfully. If the charge holds up through arraignment, any charge for which the juvenile is convicted will mean an adult criminal record.  

In Multnomah County, Ore., Deputy District Attorney Thomas Cleary said pleas can go the other way. A ballot measure passed in 1994 (Measure 11) mandates that all juveniles over 15 receive mandatory minimum sentences for certain serious crimes. Cleary said that almost all of the juveniles charged with Measure 11 crimes end up pleading down; not because prosecutors don’t think they did it, but to give them some chance at earlier release.

The solicitation for the new survey calls for “all available case-processing information from arraignment through final case disposition.” The earlier BJS studies reported the result of each transfer, but did not specify charges or sentences or whether the disposition was in the adult or juvenile system.

The new study should also provide final case disposition data by race. A Bureau of Justice Assistance report released in 2000 found that as transferred cases moved to disposition, the disparity between white and black juveniles widened during the era of stepped-up transfer laws. There were 1,900 black juveniles and 1,300 white juveniles admitted to adult jails and prisons in 1985, according to the report. By 1997, there were 4,300 blacks admitted, compared with 2,600 whites.

Research expectations

The research probably won’t provide valid state-by-state estimates, perhaps the most coveted policy tool on transfers.

“It will be the best national estimate ever, and the most detailed exploration of who kids are and what actually happens to them,” said NCJJ Senior Research Associate Patrick Griffin.       

But state-specific data are unlikely, in part because the quality of information is very different among the 50 states. Griffin and NCJJ colleagues prepared a yet-to-be published analysis for the Justice Department on the ability to collect data on transfers in each state.

In a nutshell: Thirteen states report the total number of transfers each year; 10 others report some transfers but not all; and 14 contribute information on waivers to adult court for NCJJ’s data archive, even though those 14 states don’t report the information publicly. California, Arizona and Florida are considered the standard-bearers on collection of transfer data.

That means there are 13 states with no information on transfers to adult court.

“We might not get what we want” from the survey, Arya said, “but I do think we will learn a lot about the data infrastructure at the state and city level.”


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