Many developed countries have separate juvenile or youth courts for young offenders. These systems were created in the belief that people under 18 years of age may be less aware of the consequences of their actions than adults, and less able to understand and participate in adult criminal courts, and more amenable to rehabilitation.
Under certain circumstances – usually the severity of the offence or dangerousness of the offender – youths may be transferred to the adult system on the basis that adult courts can award tougher penalties, which may deter crime and reduce future offending.
The focus of this narrative is on the effect of transferring young people to adult criminal courts on their subsequent offending. The narrative is primarily based on a systematic review including meta-analysis of nine studies (Review 1). It also draws on a second systematic review (Review 2), which contains additional evidence on the mechanisms, moderators and implementation of the intervention. The findings in Review 2 on the effect of transferring juveniles to adult court are not presented in this narrative as most of the six studies it summarised are included in Review 1. All of the included studies in the two reviews were carried out in the United States.
There is some evidence that transferring youths to the adult court system has either increased or reduced reoffending, but overall it has not had a statistically significant effect.
The meta-analysis in Review 1 found that transferring young offenders to adult courts had a small but non-significant effect on reoffending.
Five individual studies included in the meta-analysis found that juvenile transfers led to a significant increase in reoffending, three found no evidence of an effect, and one reported a significant reduction in reoffending. The review authors note, therefore, that youth transfers do not result in an overall reduction in reoffending, but may increase it.
The review authors also found significant increases in crime when studies used reconviction as a measure of reoffending, but not when rearrest was used.
The review was sufficiently systematic that many forms of bias that could influence the study conclusions can be ruled out.
Review 1 demonstrated a high quality design in terms of having a transparent and well-designed search strategy, featuring a valid statistical analysis, sufficiently assessing the risk of bias in the analysis and considering the validity of the way outcomes are measured and/or combined. However, the review did not sufficiently quantify an overall effect for unanticipated outcomes or undertake an analysis of outliers.
While the studies included in Review 1 had strong designs, the authors recognised that the studies did not take account of:
The review authors also noted that the design of the studies appeared to influence whether the intervention was found to have an effect on reoffending. Studies using non-equivalent comparison groups with statistical controls found transfers increased reoffending, while those using propensity score matching found they decreased reoffending.
The reviews identify two mechanisms by which youth transfers might reduce reoffending:
The authors note that the significant increase in reoffending in five of the nine studies included in Review 1 might be due to the young offenders seeing the use of ‘judicial waivers’ (see Moderators and Implementation) as unfair and offending out of defiance.
Reviews 1 and 2 also suggest that youth transfers could have a more general deterrent effect, not just on those who have been transferred to adult courts. Review 2 tested the mechanism that young people in general may be deterred from committing crime because they are aware of the possibility of being transferred to the adult system and being given tougher penalties, but found insufficient evidence.
The reviews note that the effect of the intervention might differ according to crimes committed by the offenders, the method of transfer and how they subsequently offend.
Review 2 explains that young offenders must be individually selected or deemed unreceptive to rehabilitation in the youth system to be transferred to the adult system. It identifies six methods of youth transfers across the US:
If the cases are considered inappropriate for adult courts, the authority exists to transfer the young offender back to the youth court under the ‘reverse waiver’.
The reviews did not mention costs or economic benefits, or provide any formal economic analysis.
There is some evidence that transferring young offenders from youth courts to adult criminal courts has either increased or reduced reoffending, but overall it has not had a statistically significant effect. The review authors note that youth transfers do not result in an overall reduction in reoffending, but may increase it. The review authors found that backfire (increased reoffending) may be more likely with particular types of crime (specifically serious violence) and when young people are transferred to adult courts by way of a ‘judicial waiver’. While reduced reoffending is assumed to result from specific deterrence and incapacitation, increased reoffending might be due to offenders perceiving their transfers to the adult system to be unfair.
Zane, S., Welsh B., Mears, D. (2016). JuvenileTransfer and the Specific Deterrence Hypothesis:Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Criminology
& Public Policy. 15(3), pp. 901-924.
Review 2: McGowan, A., Hahn, R., Liberman, A., Crosby, A., Fullilove, M., Johnson, R., Moscicki, E., Price, L., Snyder, S., Tuma, F., Lowry, J., Briss, P., Cory, S. and Stone, G. (2007). Effects on Violence of Laws and Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Juveniles from the Juvenile Justice System to the Adult Justice System. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 32(4S), pp. S7-S28.
This narrative was prepared by UCL Jill Dando Institute and was co-funded by the College of Policing and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). ESRC Grant title: 'University Consortium for Evidence-Based Crime Reduction'. Grant Ref: ES/L007223/1.