Fed Study on Juveniles in Adult Court Delayed Until At Least 2015

In 2009, the Bureau of Justice Statistics solicited bids for the Survey of Juveniles Charged in Adult Criminal Courts, which was to assess several aspects of case processing for minors who were charged as adults for their crimes.

Youth Services Insider has learned that the survey has been folded into a larger data collection process, and the Justice Department now intends to “have the data sometime in 2015,” according to BJS spokeswoman Kara McCarthy, in an email to YSI.

In 2010, a $500,000 grant was made to Westat to conduct the research, and Westat named the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ) as a subcontractor on the project. The results were expected sometime in late 2012 or early 2013.

But a broader solicitation on criminal court case processing – the National Judicial Reporting Project (NJRP) – was issued by BJS in 2011, and Westat won that grant as well. Westat was then instructed by BJS to coordinate data collection to avoid duplicative process and excess costs.

“The reason for this is that much of the data is the same,” said McCarthy. “It is an administrative data collection.”

NCJJ had already developed a plan and was close to beginning data collection for Westat when BJS decided on the merger, so that change significantly delayed the results on juvenile offenders. It is still possible that, with a 2015 release, the information will come out in time for the Justice Department (or perhaps the president) to comment on its findings.

The lingering question is: Will the fact that the juvenile research was subsumed into a larger effort stifle the amount of information collected?

NCJJ’s plan was to canvas all 50 states for the juvenile transfer study, and to collect information on juveniles in criminal court regardless of what they were charged with.

NJRP only requires for collection on those charged with felonies, and does not require a 50-state collection process. McCarthy said the intention is still to draw information from each state.

“We are trying to get state-wide data from states that have the capability to provide such data,” she said. “For other states we will use sampling or some other methodology to estimate for cases in those states.“

In a way, the felony-only threshold could lead to a more pure measurement of juveniles who are transferred into criminal court. Most of the juveniles in criminal court for misdemeanors are not transferred there; they are 16- or 17-year-olds in states where the top age of juvenile court jurisdiction is below 18.

For example, a 17-year-old New Yorker accused of a misdemeanor would be considered an adult from the original point of arrest. So counting that teenager as a transferred juvenile would be inaccurate.

The group that might be lost in that process, though, is juveniles who are in criminal court for misdemeanors because of “Once an Adult, Always an Adult” rules. Several states mandate that if a juvenile is ever transferred into criminal court for a crime, that any future involvement with the courts would also take place in criminal court.

As for specific points of study on juvenile offenders, McCarthy said BJS would “ideally like to get” the variables listed in the original 2009 solicitation. That list includes:

  • Unique identification numbers to track individual juveniles through cases
  • Demographics of offenders
  • Delinquency and/or criminal history data
  • Arrest charges
  • Arraignment charges
  • Elements of the crime that would prompt a transfer
  • Case processing information, from arraignment to final disposition (dismissal, plea, verdict)
  • Type of holding facility where defendant is held

Whenever the study finally becomes public record it will, without question, provide critical information on the handling of serious juvenile offenses in various states. There is very little aggregated information on which juveniles are transferred into adult court, for what offenses, and what becomes of those cases.

Local efforts have produced surprising results. A partnership of Baltimore nonprofits called Just Kids followed the cases of 135 juveniles who were transferred to Baltimore city adult courts between January and June of 2009. The findings are counterintuitive to the notion that trying juveniles as adults is a get-tough approach:

  • Thirty-four percent of the 135 juveniles followed by Just Kids were transferred back to juvenile court for adjudication and sentencing. Maryland has automatic and waiver transfer laws, but also allows some of those juveniles to apply for a so-called reverse waiver hearing. Such hearings allow the juvenile’s attorney to argue that the youth is more appropriately handled at the juvenile court level.
  • Seventy-two of the 135 juveniles in the study had a reverse transfer hearing, and 42 of those – 58 percent – were returned to juvenile court.
  • Another 34 percent of the 135 juveniles had charges dismissed by prosecutors.
  • 21 percent of the 135 juveniles were convicted of crimes that yielded sentences of probation , with their incarceration limited to time already serve in adult detention.
  • The final 10 percent were convicted and sent to adult prison.

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by John Kelly, editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change

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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.