Another Year With No Knowledge on Kids in Adult Court

In Youth Services Insider’s opinion, there are two glaring blind spots when it comes to data about how the child welfare and juvenile justice systems impact kids. One is the success rate of adoptions from foster care. The other is what happens to youth who are transferred to, and tried in, adult court instead of in the juvenile justice system.

We might soon see some data on the adoption front, though the Trump administration is considering action that might delay it until 2022. On the transfer front, we are still waiting for a national survey that is now several years late and in some jeopardy of becoming antiquated even if it does come out.

“As of right now, I have no set time” for the release of the Survey of Juveniles Charged in Adult Criminal Courts, said Kara McCarthy, a spokesperson for the Justice Department.

YSI has heard from another source close to the research that the data is a few months from completion, despite a temporary delay in funding prompted by the change in administrations.

State and national data are somewhat successful in capturing the flow of the juvenile justice system: how many youth are arrested, for what types of crimes, whether they are placed into facilities or onto probation.

But in most states, when a youth is tried and convicted as an adult, he disappears into the machine that is the broader state or local corrections system. There is virtually no means to track how youth fare in adult court, and what becomes of them after a plea or a trial.

A local attempt to study the issue found some surprising results back in 2010. In Baltimore, an advocacy group 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:

  • About a third of the kids were sent back to juvenile court by a judge
  • One-third had charges dismissed by prosecutors
  • 21 percent were placed on probation
  • Just 10 percent of the youth were convicted and sent to prison

HarYouth Services Insider logodly the outcomes the general public might assume, given that the whole notion of transfers was borne of “adult time for adult crime.” What those numbers reflect is that many of the juveniles transferred were handled in the community, nobody could prove they did anything, or a judge thought it was inappropriate to transfer them.

Around the same time as the Baltimore study, the Justice Department released a bulletin that said laws allowing the transfer of juveniles to adult court did not scare delinquents out of committing crimes. From the report, by University of Virginia professor Richard Redding:

“Although the limited extant research falls far short of providing definitive conclusions, the bulk of the empirical evidence suggests that transfer laws, as currently implemented, probably have little general deterrent effect on would-be juvenile offenders.”

In 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) awarded $500,000 to research and analytics firm Westat to conduct the Survey of Juveniles Charged in Adult Criminal Courts. With half a million dollars, Westat was hardly going to provide a permanent and robust process for tracking youth in the adult system. But advocates close to the issue of transfers were excited that there would finally be some glimpse at the national trend lines.

After some early snags over whether the survey would be folded into a larger project awarded to Westat, the study was delayed until at least 2015. The project later became an independent venture again, with at least preliminary information due out in 2016.

Not to be. And in 2017, McCarthy suggested that it could still be a while.

“The Survey of Juveniles Charged in Adult Criminal Courts is still in the field,” she said, in 2017. “The data collection has been more complicated than expected and we are working to make certain that the research is done to BJS standards.”

Here’s hoping we really are within months of the final data, and within a year of learning something about what happens to kids who are treated like adults in the eyes of the law.

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Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change
About Jeremy Loudenback, Senior Editor, The Chronicle of Social Change 352 Articles
Jeremy is a West Coast-based senior editor for The Chronicle of Social Change. Reach him at