Does Transferring Juveniles to Adult Courts Reduce Recidivism?
Date:  08-11-2016

New report suggests that transfer can increase offending
From the report Juvenile Transfer and the Specific Deterrence Hypothesis by Steven N. Zane, Brandon C. Welsh and Daniel P. Mears

Research Summary

We conducted a systematic review of recidivism outcomes for juveniles transferred to adult court, incorporating meta-analytic techniques. Nine studies—based on nine statistically independent samples—met the inclusion criteria. Pooled analysis suggests that juvenile transfer had no statistically significant effect on recidivism. However, the distribution of effect sizes was highly heterogeneous and, given the strength of the research designs, suggests that in some instances transfer may decrease recidivism and in others may increase it.

Policy Implications

The practice of transferring juvenile offenders to the criminal justice system has decreased from its peak in the mid-1990s, but it is still estimated to affect tens of thousands of juveniles in the United States each year. As such, a coherent rationale for transfer policy is needed. The present review casts doubt on one prominent justification for transfer, that it creates a specific deterrent effect for transferred juveniles. Indeed, the results suggest that transfer may in fact increase offending. More generally, the results underscore the need for more high-quality research to identify the conditions under which transfer may decrease or increase recidivism.

The juvenile court was established in 1899 in Cook County, Illinois, born out of the Progressive Movement and its emphasis on treating juvenile offenders outside of the punitive criminal justice system (Tanenhaus, 2004). Central to the court's mission was the assumption that juvenile offenders are not fully responsible for their conduct and can be rehabilitated and reformed into law-abiding adults. This rehabilitative focus involves a case-by-case informal approach to deciding how to intervene with each juvenile, and it stands in contrast to the formalism and retributive focus in criminal justice (Farrington, Loeber, and Howell, 2012; Feld, 2003).

Historically, the juvenile court has been guided by the assumption that it has “the knowledge and insight to make thoughtful, individualized judgments that will keep [society] safe and promote positive development for adolescents” (Mulvey et al., 2004: 214). Since its inception, however, the court has held that some juvenile offenders should be handled in adult court because of their dangerousness to other juveniles or to the public (Kupchik, 2006; Zimring, 2000). Accordingly, there have always been mechanisms for transferring the most serious juvenile offenders to the criminal justice system. The historical rationale for the practice of transfer is twofold. First, it serves as a “punitive necessity” for offenders who cannot be sufficiently punished in juvenile court (Zimring, 2000: 208). Second, it provides a mechanism for removing offenders who are “beyond rehabilitation” and whose presence in the juvenile system would interfere with the rehabilitative mission of the court (Mears, 2003: 160). Read the full report here.