Many people believe that some crimes are so terrible that the courts should focus on the type of offense and not the age of the accused. From 1987 to 1993, there was a dramatic 65 percent increase in the rate of arrests of juveniles for murder. The homicides were overwhelmingly concentrated among black teenagers in the nation's largest cities. Rates of other violent crimes, like rape, robbery, and aggravated assault, also increased during this time. Most experts believe the increases were related to an upsurge in violent gangs selling crack cocaine and lax controls on access to handguns during this time.
Politicians responded to voter outrage at the increase in violent crime among juveniles and several high-profile murders involving juveniles. By the year 2000 all 50 states and the District of Columbia had one or more laws permitting the transfer of youths to criminal courts to be tried as adults. Many states have also expanded these laws in order to make
FIGURE 5.18 Juvenile arrest rates for violent crime index offenses by sex, 1980–2001
it easier to prosecute juveniles as adults. For example, a 1995 Missouri law removed the minimum age limit, which had been 14, for trying children as adults in cases involving drug dealing, murder, rape, robbery, and first-degree assault. The law also permits children 12 years old to be prosecuted as adults for other crimes. A Texas law allows children as young as 10 to be sentenced to up to 40 years' incarceration. In Idaho, criminal courts have jurisdiction over juveniles arrested for carrying concealed weapons on school property.
The number of cases transferred from juvenile to adult courts increased 47 percent between 1987 and 1996, from 6,800 to 10,000. However, despite increasing numbers, the proportion of transferred cases overall remained fairly constant in the 1990s. In 1992, 1.4 percent of all formally processed delinquency cases were transferred to criminal (adult) court. In 2000, 1 percent of all formally processed delinquency cases were waived to adult court.
Does the Practice Make a Difference?
Because the murder rate by juveniles consistently declined from 1992 to 2001, dropping about 62 percent
FIGURE 5.19 Juvenile arrest rates for Property Crime Index offenses, by sex, 1980–2001
(to 1,400 murders in 2001), some public officials believe that efforts to curb crime by trying children as adults has worked. Other experts attribute the decline in the murder rate to big-city police crackdowns on illegal guns, expanded after-school crime prevention programs, and the decline of crack cocaine and violent gangs.
A Florida study suggested that juveniles tried in adult courts were likely to be rearrested more quickly and more often than juveniles who went through the juvenile court system ("The Transfer of Juveniles to Criminal Court: Does It Make A Difference?" Crime and Delinquency, April 1996). The study compared the rearrest rates of juveniles transferred to criminal court to a matched sample (similar crimes, past court experience, age, gender, and race) of those retained in the juvenile system. Thirty percent of transferred youths were rearrested, compared to only 19 percent of the nontransferred ones. Transferred youths who were rearrested had committed a new offense within 135 days of release, compared to 227 days for youths processed in juvenile courts.
TABLE 5.4 Delinquency cases handled by juvenile courts, 1985–2000
Most serious offense
Number of cases
Other violent sex offenses
Other person offenses
Motor vehicle theft
Stolen property offenses
Other property offenses
Drug law violations
Public order offenses
Obstruction of justice
Liquor law violations
Nonviolent sex offenses
Other public order offenses
Violent crime index1
Property crime index2
1Includes criminal homicide, forcible rape, robbery, and aggravated assault.
2Includes burglary, larceny-theft, moter vehicle theft, and arson.
Some of the inherent problems in transferring juveniles to adult court are discussed in the book Youth on Trial: A Developmental Perspective of Juvenile Justice, edited by Thomas Grisso and Robert G. Schwartz (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2000). According to the research presented in the book, juveniles find it more difficult than adults to make "knowing and intelligent" decisions at many junctures in the criminal justice process. Problems arise in particular in the waiving of Miranda rights, which allow the juvenile to remain silent and talk to a lawyer before responding to questions posed by law enforcement officers. The waiving of these rights can lead to much more serious consequences in adult court than in juvenile proceedings. As the book points out, "questions must be raised regarding the juvenile's judgment, decision-making capacity, and impulse control as they relate to criminal culpability" in adult proceedings. Researchers and experts in child development emphasize the need to understand an adolescent's intellectual, social, and emotional development before deciding if a youth can be held blameworthy as an adult for a particular criminal offense.
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