August 19, 2008

Juvenile transfer increases recidivism

Department of Justice confirms multiple study findings

OK, if you are reading my blog you probably already know this. But it is news when the U.S. Department of Justice reaches a similar conclusion. And, combined with an editorial response by the New York Times, it could signal a changing of the tide.

An article in the Juvenile Justice Bulletin, "Juvenile transfer laws: An effective deterrent to delinquency?" summarizes a series of large-scale studies comparing juveniles who have been transferred to adult with those who have remained in juvenile courts. Despite using different methodologies and being in different jurisdictions with different types of transfer laws (automatic, prosecutorial, or judicial), the results are "strong" and "compelling" in their consistency, reports Richard E. Redding:
"All of the studies found higher recidivism rates among offenders who had been transferred to criminal court, compared with those who were retained in the juvenile system…. Thus, the extant research provides sound evidence that transferring juvenile offenders to the criminal court does not engender community protection by reducing recidivism. On the contrary, transfer substantially increases recidivism."
The New York Times issued a short but sweet editorial response, "The Case for Juvenile Courts," lambasting current juvenile transfer policies as "a terrible mistake":
This country made a terrible mistake when it began routinely trying youthful offenders as adults. This get-tough approach was supposed to deter crime. But a growing number of government-financed studies have shown that minors prosecuted as adults commit more crimes - and are more likely to become career criminals - than ones processed through juvenile courts.

The value of specialized courts for young people is underscored in a new report from the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. After evaluating the available research, it concludes that transferring juveniles for trial and sentencing to an adult criminal court has increased recidivism, especially among violent offenders, and has led many young people to a permanent life of crime.

The juvenile justice system was one of the great reforms of the Progressive Era. The push to go back to trying children as adults began in the mid-1990s, when state lawmakers fixated on a few, high-profile crimes by young people and - convinced there was a youth crime wave - came up with a politically convenient solution.

Young people who commit serious, violent crimes deserve severe punishment. But reflexively transferring juvenile offenders - many of whom are accused of nonviolent crimes - into the adult system is not making anyone safer. When they are locked up with adults, young people learn criminal behaviors. They are also deprived of the counseling and family support that they would likely get in the juvenile system, which is more focused on rehabilitation. And once they are released, their felony convictions make it hard for them to find a job and rebuild their lives.

Nearly every state now has laws that encourage prosecutors to try minors as adults. The recent studies of this approach should lead legislatures to abandon these counterproductive policies.
Hat tip: Grits for Breakfast

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