May 8, 1998
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
Juveniles in the Adult Criminal Justice System:
Specialists in American National Government
Both state and federal legislators have enacted provisions to relax the criteria
governing the transfer of juvenile offenders to adult courts. Presently, all 50 states make
some provision for these transfers, and a 1994 crime act approved by Congress (P.L.
103-322) requires the prosecution of youths 13 years of age and above as adults for gunrelated violent crimes.
Criminal justice professionals and the media have noted the rise of juvenile crime
rates nationwide and a growing surge in youth violence. This in turn has highlighted the
debate over juvenile transfers to adult courts. Proponents of treating violent juvenile
offenders as adults argue that juvenile offenders should be held accountable and receive
punishment that is appropriate to the seriousness of their offenses and that society must
be protected by their removal from law abiding communities. They urge that young
offenders must be held accountable for both lesser and more serious crimes, especially
when the former offenses, if unpunished, may lead offenders to commit the latter.
Opponents of treating violent juvenile offenders as adults argue that harsh punishment
of juvenile offenders is counterproductive, creating recidivism. Trying youths in juvenile
courts rather than adult courts, they contend, is more effective in most cases. Some
opponents argue that the media and legislators have overreacted to the threat posed by
juvenile violence to society.
Researchers identify three phases of reform within the juvenile justice system at the
state level: (1) an initial phase, originating in the 19th century and lasting until the early
1960s, that provided for the creation of separate courts for juveniles, with the objective
of rehabilitating youthful offenders; (2) a second phase, beginning in the 1960s and 1970s,
that sought to adapt the juvenile justice system to address new problems and correct the
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abuses of the earlier system; and (3) the current phase, starting in the 1980s, that reacts
to the public demand for stricter responses to serious juvenile crimes.
Although state and local governments have the primary responsibility for crime
control, the federal government has assisted them by providing financial and technical aid.
Federal initiatives to combat juvenile delinquency began around 1953, culminating in the
passage of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Act of 1974. Most recently, the 105th
Congress provided $250 million in FY1998 for a new Juvenile Accountability Incentive
Block Grant program. The federal criminal justice system maintains no institutions for the
incarceration of juveniles, and has no separate juvenile court system.
In response to the rising juvenile crime rate in the mid-1980s, most states began
enacting legislation to permit the transfer of violent juvenile offenders into the adult
criminal justice system. Presently, all 50 states make some provision for transfers of
juveniles to adult criminal courts, and most states provide multiple transfer mechanisms.
These may involve the use of one or more of the following: waiving of jurisdiction over
a case by juvenile court judges; the statutory exclusion of juvenile offenders from the
juvenile system; and prosecutorial discretion resulting in a similar transfer.1
Although judicially waived cases make up fewer than 2% of all formally processed
delinquency cases, this reflects a 71% increase nationwide from 1985 through 1994. Since
the end of 1995, 13 state legislatures have lowered from 17 to 16 or 15 the upper age of
juvenile court jurisdiction.2 Under the Commerce, Justice, and State Appropriations Act,
1998 (P.L. 105-119), recipients of Juvenile Accountability Incentive Grant funds must
certify to the Attorney General that they are considering or will consider adopting new
procedures, including those that would permit the prosecution of violent juvenile offenders
With respect to federal jurisdictions, the 103rd Congress passed the Violent Crime
Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 (P.L. 103-322), containing a provision (Sec.
140001) that requires the prosecution in federal courts of juveniles 13 years of age and
older as adults if they possessed a firearm while committing a violent crime.
Statistics on Juvenile Violence
Over the last few years, criminal justice professionals and the media have not only
noted rising rates of juvenile crime nationwide, but also warned of a coming surge in youth
violence. For example, John J. DiIulio, Jr., a Princeton University professor of politics and
public affairs, not only foresees a teenage crime wave, but also describes some youngsters
as “superpredators,” lacking in moral values and more violent than previous generations.3
James Fyfe, a member of the faculty of Temple University and a former homicide
U.S. Dept. of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Juvenile
Offenders and Victims: 1997 Update on Violence, by Melissa Sickmund, Howard N. Snyder, and
Eileen Poe-Yamagata (Washington: 1997), pp. 29-30. Hereafter referred to as 1997 Update on
Ibid., pp. 30-31.
Quoted in Richard Lacayo, “Law and Order,” Time, vol. 147, Jan. 15, 1996, p. 52.
detective, predicts an increase in violent crime by juveniles within the next 15 years, due
to a numerical increase in this age group and school overcrowding.4
Recent data released by the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reports provides evidence of a
continuing increase in juvenile violence:
(1) The total reported number of those under the age of 18 arrested for murder and
non-negligent manslaughter ballooned from 1,355 in 1987 to 2,039 in 1996, an
increase of 50.5% in 10 years.
(2) The total reported number of those under the age of 18 arrested for violent crime
rose from 58,071 in 1987 to 92,848 in 1996, an increase of 59.9%.5
These data subsume the fact that the juvenile violent crime rate decreased by 3% in 1995,
the first decline in the rate in eight years. In addition, 1995 data reveal a decline in the
violent crime arrests of juveniles aged 14 years and younger, suggesting a possible
lessening in the rate when these juveniles reach the ages of 15 to 17.6
Arguments for and Against Treating Juvenile Offenders as Adults
Proponents of change urge that young offenders must be held accountable for both
lesser and more serious crimes, especially when the former offenses, if left unpunished,
may lead offenders to commit the latter. In this assessment, chronic and violent offenders
must receive punishment that is appropriate to the seriousness of the offense, and society
must have the protection afforded by the removal of young violent criminals from the
Senator Carol Moseley-Braun, author of the amendment to the 1994 Crime Act that
requires the transfer of juveniles to adult court for crimes committed with guns, argued
that this provision “sends a clear message to kids committing these crimes. If you murder
someone, or commit a violent crime with a gun, you will go to jail. It is as simple as
The juvenile justice system, others contend, is too lenient or it is incapable in its
current form of coping with the rate and types of violent crime among youths today. Thus,
proponents favor locking up dangerous kids so that they will not commit further crimes.
Timothy W. Maier and Michael Rust, “A Decline in Crime?” Insight Magazine, at
www.insightmag.com, visited on April 9, 1998.
U.S. Dept. of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, “Crime in the United States,” 1996
Uniform Crime Reports (Washington: 1997), p. 218.
1997 Update on Violence, p. 18.
Paul J. McNulty, “Natural Born Killers?” Policy Review, winter 1995, pp. 86-87.
“Should 13-Year-Olds Who Commit Crimes with Firearms Be Tried as Adults?” ABA
Journal, vol. 30, Mar. 1994, p. 46. Hereafter referred to as Should 13-Year-Olds Be Tried?
They also note that violent youth offenders transferred to adult courts usually have
a history of increasingly serious criminal behavior. Paul H. Robinson, a former member of
the U.S. Sentencing Commission, comments: “Dealing with 14-year-olds in adult court is
admitting what everybody knows)juvenile justice is ineffective in stopping teenage
violence. There’s a classic pattern. Trivial thefts turn into more substantial robberies and
those turn into more violent crimes.”9
Opponents of treating violent juvenile offenders as adults argue that harsh punishment
of juvenile offenders is counterproductive. Trying youths in juvenile courts rather than
adult courts, they contend, is more effective in most cases. Laura Murphy Lee, director
of the ACLU’s Washington national office, finds that such treatment is inconsistent with
present efforts to rehabilitate juvenile offenders and “is more likely to have the opposite
effect by easing juveniles into the world of adult crime.”10
Moreover, some opponents argue that the threat of juvenile violence is less than
suggested by the media and that recent state legislative initiatives may overreact. Larry
Mays, a criminal justice professor at New Mexico State University, finds that states are
“killing the fly with an elephant gun. They tend to be overly punitive because of cases that
are off the scale.”11
Other opponents argue that the juvenile justice system is effective. Barry Krisberg,
president of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, a child advocacy
organization, cites studies showing that violent youth offenders are more likely to be
convicted in juvenile court and serve a longer sentence than those tried in adult court.
According to Krisberg: "In juvenile court, you have bench rather than jury trials, lower
rules of evidence and higher rates of pleas."12 According to one study, researchers found
juvenile cases transferred to adult court were far more likely to be pending and
unresolved, as compared to the sample from the juvenile justice system. Furthermore,
the results did not support the proposition that juveniles transferred to adult court would
receive greater punishment than they could expect in juvenile court. Except for a small
number of offenders, the prospect of transfer did not appear to provide a deterrent to
Penelope Lemov, “The Assault on Juvenile Justice,” Governing, vol. 8, Dec. 1994, p. 28.
Hereafter referred to as The Assault on Juvenile Justice.
Should 13-Year-Olds Be Tried? p. 47.
The Assault on Juvenile Justice, p. 28.
Robie Sherman, “Juvenile Judges Say: Time to Get Tough,” National Law Journal, vol.
16, Aug. 8, 1994, p. A24; The Assault on Juvenile Justice, pp. 28-29.
Kristine Kinder, Carol Veneziano, Michael Ficter, and Henry Azuma, “A Comparison of
the Dispositions of Juvenile Offenders Certified as Adults with Juvenile Offenders Not Certified,”
Juvenile and Family Court Journal, vol. 46, summer 1995, p. 37.