Youth in adult justice system

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Evidence of Ineffectiveness

Strategies with this rating are not good investments. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently negative and sometimes harmful results.


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Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Youth transfer provisions allow arrested youth to be placed under the jurisdiction of the adult criminal justice system rather than the juvenile justice system. Such transfers may occur at the discretion of a juvenile court judge or prosecutor, be mandated for certain crimes or age groups, or occur via blended sentencing  laws that combine a juvenile sentence with a suspended adult sentence. The legal mechanisms that support transfers vary by state1.

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that transferring youth who commit serious offenses to the adult criminal system increases the likelihood that these youth will re-offend2, 3. Youth incarcerated in the adult justice system also appear to be at greater risk of physical and sexual abuse than youth in the juvenile justice system4.

Youth who are charged with property crime or a serious first offense have higher rates of rearrest when they are transferred to adult criminal court than non-transferred youth4. Experts suggest that youth transfer may contribute to higher recidivism through stigmatization and labeling effects, lack of rehabilitation services during incarceration with adult offenders, and criminal behaviors learned from adult offenders3.

Prosecuting juvenile offenders in adult court may increase waiting time before adjudication and increase the likelihood of receiving more severe sentences than prosecution in the juvenile justice system5, 6. Additional evidence is needed to determine the effects of laws supporting prosecution of juveniles through the adult system on juvenile crime prevention overall3, 4, 6, 7.

How could this strategy impact health disparities? This strategy is rated likely to increase disparities.
Implementation Examples

As of 2011, most states have provisions to transfer youth to adult court; 45 states have judicial waiver provisions, 15 have prosecutorial discretion provisions, and 29 have statutory exclusion provisions to transfer8. In 2014, about 4,200 adolescents younger than age 18 were estimated to be held in U.S. jails9.

Some states have enacted reforms that prohibit or limit youth transfer to adult court. In 2015, for example, Illinois enacted a law prohibiting automatic transfer for youth under age 18 and New Jersey increased the minimum age for transfer from 14 to 15 and limited transfer to the most serious and violent crimes10. Many national organizations oppose youth transfer, for example, the Campaign for Youth & Justice11 and the National Juvenile Justice Network12.


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1 CFYJ-Arya 2011 - Arya N. State trends: Legislative changes from 2005 to 2010 removing youth from the adult criminal justice system, Washington, D.C.: Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ); 2011.

2 CG-Violence - The Guide to Community Preventive Services (The Community Guide). Violence.

3 OJJDP-Redding 2010 - Redding RE. Juvenile transfer laws: An effective deterrent to delinquency? Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP); June 2010.

4 OJJDP-Mulvey 2012 - Mulvey EP, Schubert CA. Transfer of juveniles to adult court: Effects of a broad policy in one court. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP); December 2012.

5 OJJDP-Washburn 2015 - Washburn JJ, Teplin LA, Voss LS, et al. Detained youth processed in juvenile and adult court: Psychiatric disorders and mental health needs. Juvenile Justice Bulletin, Washington, D.C.: Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP); September 2015.

6 Steiner 2006 - Steiner B, Hemmens C, Bell V. Legislative waiver reconsidered: General deterrent effects of statutory exclusion laws enacted post-1979. Justice Quarterly. 2006;23(1):34-59.

7 Steiner 2006a - Steiner B, Wright E. Assessing the relative effects of state direct file waiver laws on violent juvenile crime: Deterrence or irrelevance? Journal of Criminal Law & Criminology. 2006;96(4):1451-77.

8 NCJJ-Sickmund 2014 - Sickmund M, Puzzanchera C. Juvenile offenders and victims: 2014 National report. Pittsburgh, PA: National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ); December 2014.

9 OJJDP-Juvenile statistics - Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Statistical briefing book: Juveniles in corrections.

10 CFYJ-Bookout 2015 - Bookout N. 2015 State legislative sessions: An update on nationwide juvenile justice reforms to protect youth from the adult criminal justice system. Campaign for Youth Justice (CFYJ). August 2015.

11 CFYJ - Campaign for Youth & Justice (CFYJ). Because the consequences aren’t minor.

12 NYJN - National Youth Justice Network (NYJN). Build the movement for anti-racist, healing-centered youth justice.