Skip to main content

Charging Youth as Adults: What's the Impact?

The juvenile justice system works best when it rehabilitates youthful offenders and gives them the life skills to succeed.  To solely emphasize punishment, neither serves the best interest of the youth nor of society-at-large.  However, there remains an underlying tension between punishment and rehabilitation, specifically when the youth is charged with a particularly offensive crime.

Given these circumstances, states across the country have transfer procedures in place, which can transfer youth to adult criminal court.  One such procedure is commonly known as direct file.  Here, prosecutors may have full discretion to charge a youth as an adult.  This practice is very serious, with long-term implications for the youth.  It is the responsibility of juvenile justice professionals to best understand whether these policies are worthy of the potential significant cost.

A recent JJIE article revisits the issue of direct filing, by highlighting research from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).  This study examines a sample of direct filing cases in Maricopa County, Arizona.  One conclusion is that, "most of the youth in the study who were sent to adult facilities returned to the community within a few years, varying widely in their levels of adjustment."  The authors also find youth were most likely to adjust, "when they were not influenced by antisocial peers."

Are adult correctional facilities the best environment for youth to learn the pro-social skills necessary to resist anti-social peers in their community?  Earlier research has highlighted the alarming incidence of sexual violence against youth in adult institutions, both by other inmates and facility staff.  If youth fear for their safety, how can they be expected to learn anything other destructive lessons from their time in these facilities?

Does direct filing youth to adult court have a positive impact in curtailing crime?  This question gained great salience for California in 2000, when the state passed Proposition 21, which expanded prosecutorial discretion for a number of specific crimes. A 2011 CJCJ report found that the use of direct file varies highly across the state, instituting a system of "justice by geography."  Moreover, the practice did not correlate with a reduction in overall juvenile crime.

The issues surrounding prosecutorial direct file remain controversial and subject to further debate.  Nevertheless, a 21st-century juvenile justice system should not merely punish youth for prior offending behavior, but help develop tools necessary for rehabilitation and future success.

Keywords: adult court transfers, dispositional options, youth

Posted in Blog, Justice by Geography, Sentencing

California Stentencing Institute screenshot

California Sentencing
Institute (CASI)

Explore how California’s 58 counties send their residents to correctional institutions with interactive maps, charts, and downloadable data.

Connect with us

      YouTube

Contribute to CJCJ

Make a difference to youth and adults trying to get their lives back on track.

Join our mailing list

Get regular updates and news delivered to your inbox. We won’t share your information with anyone else.