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Trying Youths in Adult Court Has Lasting Negative Impacts: Sentencing Project Report

A new report points to a higher rate of violent recidivism when juveniles are pushed into the adult criminal court system.

The report claims those laws disproportionately impact youths of color. The report specifically targets youths arrested and tried as adults on drug charges.

Further, the resulting adult arrest record may have additional consequences a juvenile record may not, according to information from the report, 'How Tough on Crime Became Tough on Kids: Prosecuting Teenage Drug Charges in Adult Courts', by Josh Rovner and disseminated by justice system reform advocacy group The Sentencing Project.

“The ability of states to send teenagers into the adult system on nonviolent offenses, a relic of the war on drugs, threatens the futures of those teenagers who are arrested on drug charges, regardless of whether or not they are convicted … on those charges,” said Marc Mauer, Sentencing Project executive director.

Nationally, estimates in the report cite a decline in arrested youths referred to adult court, but attribute that decline to shrinking juvenile arrest rates rather than less frequent use of waivers to transfer youth offenders. It also noted that 22 states do not report on their transfers. There are 46 states and the District of Columbia that allow juveniles to be tried as adults on drug charges while a handful of states--Connecticut, Kansas, Massachusetts, and New Mexico--do not have such policies.

Further, in 33 states and the District of Columbia, a juvenile convicted of an offense as an adult will be treated as an adult in all future matters. According to the report, there are nine states that charge 17-year olds as adults for all offenses: Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, New York, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin. North Carolina and New York charge 16-year olds as adults for all offenses.

The consequences of these policies, according to the report, can be have long-term, damaging implications on the youths impacted. One study of young offenders in the New York City area found adolescents processed in adult courts, a frequent occurrence, “were more likely to be re-arrested, they were re-arrested more often and more quickly and for more serious offenses, and they were re-incarcerated at higher rates than those in the New Jersey juvenile courts” where those prosecutions are less frequent, the report reads.

A study from the CDC cited in the report found that the harsher penalties increase reoffending rates, partially because the adult system is a “school for crime.” That same report also found juveniles who have been transferred, have “far higher rates of suicide and violent victimization” while in prison.

Lawmakers supporting trying youths in adult courts cite the importance of taking a firm stance on criminal behavior, public safety issues, and the belief those younger than 18 have a sufficient moral compass. Texas state Sen. John Whitmire, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, was cited in a Houston Chronicle article penned amid Texas lawmakers’ debate last year arguing 17-year-olds don’t belong in the juvenile justice system because they can tell wrong from right.

According to information in the report, though, research that helped shape U.S. Supreme Court decisions on juvenile offenses “made clear” adolescent development continues through the mid-20s. The Sentencing Project report suggests states raise the ages of juvenile court jurisdiction to 18, and “explore the feasibility and impact of raising juvenile court jurisdiction through late adolescence,” among other ideas.

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