Skip to main content

Two Decades of Research Suggests Sending Kids to Adult Courts Doesn’t Prevent Crime

Maybe juvie is a good option.

By Francie Diep


(Photo: Joe Gratz/Flickr)

After two decades of trying tens of thousands of minors as adults every year, there’s little evidence the practice deters kids from committing crimes again, according to a new meta-analysis of previous studies.

Instead, when researchers pooled data from different papers, they found young people who are transferred to adult courts have higher recidivism rates. Still, because the results of each of the studies varied so much, it’s hard to pin down what’s going on, write the authors of the analysis, a team of criminologists from Northeastern and Florida State universities. Maybe trying kids as adults works some of the time — perhaps for older teenagers, or repeat offenders. We simply don’t know for sure.

Juvenile courts are set up to be less punitive than adult courts, and to send defendants to therapy and rehabilitation programs instead of prison. The idea is that folks younger than 17 or 18 are less culpable for their crimes because they haven’t fully matured — a notion neuroscience supports—and are more amenable to learning and reform.

Young people who are transferred to adult courts have higher recidivism rates.

The 1980s and ’90s saw a sharp rise in the rates of serious crimes such as rapes and murders committed by young people. That prompted “nearly every state” to pass laws making it easier for prosecutors and judges to send youths into the ordinary criminal justice system to face harsher punishments, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Now, the tenor has changed. Most states are trying to channel kids back into juvenile court, the National Conference of State Legislatures finds. Still, it’s estimated that, every year, tens of thousands of people young enough to qualify for juvie are sent to adult court, according to the new analysis.

That could be a problem: “If in fact transfer [to adult courts] does not have a general deterrent or specific deterrent effect, then its continued use may be questionable,” the meta-analysis authors write in their paper, which was published in the journal Criminology & Public Policy.

Some politicians and members of the public might want to see serious crimes committed by youth penalized more severely, but that’s legally suspect reasoning, the authors note. The latest science — and Supreme Court decisions — point to young people as being less culpable, and less deserving of adult consequences.