Laws and practices that treat justice-involved young people as though they were “little adults” subject youth to harmful conditions of confinement and drive racial disparities.
They also don’t make communities safer.
A new Justice Policy Institute report, The Child, Not the Charge: Transfer Laws are Not Advancing Public Safety, underscores the harm of transferring youth to adult court at a moment when our country is grappling with the implications of decades of racist practices in the juvenile and criminal justice systems.
Far too often, youth of color are pushed into adult court and sentenced to punishment in the adult system — in ways not experienced by similarly situated white youth — that will result in life-long adverse outcomes. This punishment in the adult system is counter to the research supporting an age-appropriate and community-based approach that is more effective than incarceration.
Automatic transfer of children into the adult system was one of the many responses in the 1990s to a perceived increase in youth crime. This was a departure from nearly a century of practice based on the principles that children do not have fully-developed decision-making skills, lack requisite impulse control, and are more amenable to rehabilitation than adults.
A separate juvenile justice system was developed to meet the unique needs of children who engaged in delinquent behavior. However, racialized “tough on crime” rhetoric of the 1990s, including stoking fears of mythical “superpredator” youth, resulted in an erosion of these protections.
Between 1992 and1996, 43 states and the District of Columbia passed laws making it easier to transfer children into the adult criminal justice system. These policies did little to prevent serious crime by young people, but had catastrophic effects on those children transferred into the adult system. Youth who are incarcerated in adult jails and prisons show long and persistent histories of victimization and trauma as a result of being held in adult facilities.
Incarceration during adolescence leads to worsened health outcomes across the board, including stress-related illnesses such as hypertension and obesity. From elevated suicide rates to placement in isolation to persistent exposure to physical and sexual victimization, adult facilities are no place for a child.
Every night, more than 3,000 children still go to sleep in adult facilities, at great risk of sexual assault and suicide, despite federal incentives to remove all children from adult jails and prisons.
The consequences of transferring youth into the adult system are felt most acutely by youth of color, particularly African-American youth. This is partly a result of the over-policing of communities of color. In 2018, black youth accounted for 35 percent of all arrests, despite accounting for only 14 percent of the U.S. population. Some of these arrests will ultimately lead to transfer to the adult court system.
Black youth make up 54 percent of those waived to adult court—the largest disparity in more than 40 years. This is true even though all young people, regardless of race, have similar rates of risk-taking behavior, including behavior that is defined as violent.
In the mid-1990s, some warned that violent offenses by children would rise by 20 percent in a decade. This fueled the movement to subject children who have committed serious crimes to adult punishment. That nightmare scenario never materialized.
By 2005, violent crime rates by youth were almost cut in half. As crime declined, many states began to roll back transfer into the adult system and expanded options that kept youth in the juvenile justice system. Youth violent crime continued to fall. Rates in 2016 were nearly half of those a decade prior.
Research findings indicate that most youth do not pose significant public safety risks, even those eventually transferred to adult court. An analysis of six states that transfer a significant number of youth found that the vast majority of youth transferred do not ultimately go to prison. This raises a question about whether the underlying conduct was serious enough at the outset to warrant transfer.
Ending the placement of youth in the adult justice system is an urgent and necessary reform towards creating a fair and effective justice system. Treating children as if they are adults and trying them in the adult system is wrong, dangerous and in desperate need of reform. Years of continuous reform have begun to undo the damage of these draconian laws, but much work remains.
States must eliminate transfer mechanisms and reinvest resources in community-based programming that has been shown to safely and effectively serve youth. We must invest in approaches that address the needs of both those who have caused harm and been harmed—which is often the same person depending on the day—by establishing public health partnerships to reduce individual and community violence.
Jurisdictions should be using validated risk and needs assessment tools to inform decision making around placement, and length of stay, and increase age-appropriate resources for the small subset of youth for whom some form of limited secure confinement is necessary.
Our children are not “little adults” and should not be treated as such.
Marc Schindler is executive director of the Justice Policy Institute. Marcy Mistrett is CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice.