Document Type

Working Paper

Publication Date



Rising juvenile crime rates over three decades spurred legal mobilizations within many state legislatures to vastly expand the transfer of adolescent criminal offenders under the age of eighteen to the jurisdiction of the criminal court. The proliferation of transfer regimes over the past several decades calls into question the very rationale for a juvenile court. Both the boundaries for transfer and mechanisms to effect it were redesigned. This redrawing of the boundary between the juvenile and adult justice systems resulted in a wholesale movement of large numbers of juveniles into the adult system, while stripping juvenile court judges of the discretion to make retail individualized assessments of culpability and dangerousness. About one in four juvenile offenders below the age of 18 now are prosecuted in adult court, most of whom are excluded from juvenile court in states where the age boundary between juvenile and criminal court has been lowered to sixteen or seventeen. The legislative line drawing process assumes that modern adolescent offenders are now criminally culpable and more dangerous at younger ages than they were in the past. These developments are challenged by evidence from developmental science about the capacities of minors for emotional regulation and behavioral control. The article examines the legal architecture and institutional design of the new boundary-drawing regime and assesses its instrumental and expressive effects, and estimates its effects on public safety and the allocation of punishments. Nearly all studies, across a range of sampling and measurement conditions, produce strong evidence that rates of juvenile offending are not lower in states where it is relatively more common to try adolescents as adults. Transferring adolescent offenders to the criminal court exposes them to harsh and sometimes toxic forms of punishment that have the perverse effect of increasing criminal activity. Juveniles who have been tried and sentenced as adults are more likely to re-offend, more quickly and for more serious offenses, than their counterparts who have been tried as juveniles. The criminalization of adolescent crime is an ineffective and dangerous means of crime control that may actually compromise public safety. Individualized and neutral decision making and greater regulation of eligibility can reduce and mitigate the excessive reach of modern transfer laws while preserving the important legitimating functions of waiver.


Criminal Law | Juvenile Law | Law