Getting a precise 50-state view of how many youth get charged as adults is impossible, because there is no requirement for states to track or report statistics on it. So the National Center for Juvenile Justice has steadily built and refined a model for estimating the frequency of these charges using states where decent numbers are available.
The center’s most recent report, which uses 2019 data and was released in late October, is cause for optimism. It estimates that 53,000 youth were charged as adults that year. That is an 80% drop from the “adult crime for adult time” era of the mid-1990s, when an estimated 250,000 youth were exposed to adult criminal charges. But it’s also about a 30% decrease from the most recent estimate done by the center in 2015.
There are three main ways a youth will find themselves charged as adults:
-Because the state’s law defines youth under the age of 18 to be adults in the eyes of the law, meaning the juvenile justice system cuts off at age 16 or 17.
-Because a state law and statute mandates that youth are charged as adults for certain types of crimes (many states have such laws around accusations of homicide, sexual assault, or crimes where a firearm was used).
-Because someone, generally either a prosecutor or judge, has the discretion to waive a youth into adult court and decides to do so.
So what is behind the recent decline? A look at the particulars in the 2015 and 2019 estimates shows a clear primary factor: the steady erosion in states with an age of jurisdiction below 18.
In 2015, there were nine states that treated some teens under 18 as adults, no matter what. By October of 2019, when Michigan raised its age of jurisdiction to 18 (a move that actually took effect last month), only three states were left that had not “raised the age” to 18: Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin.
In 2015, the NCJJ estimate of youth charged as adults due to lower juvenile jurisdiction age laws was 66,700, and that accounted for 88% of all youth charged as adults. By 2019, the number was 40,800; 77% of youth charged.
At minimum, the trend reflected in the most recent estimates suggests two things. First, as states have raised their age of jurisdiction, the use of transfers to adult court in those states seems to increase. The estimates suggest this is mostly happening because of state statutes, not prosecutors and judges, which is pretty rational: If people who were once considered adults are now considered youth, and there are statutes that transfer youth into adult court, pretty good chance the frequency of such transfers will increase.
A second takeaway: If and when the three remaining states raise their age of jurisdiction, it is conceivable America will get down to less than 15,000 youth charged as adults. If you set aside the estimated 40,800 youth charged as adults in 2019 because they live in states where 17-year-olds are adults, that leaves 12,200 youth charged because of state transfer statutes or based on the decision of a judge or prosecutor. If Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin all raised their age, you figure a few thousand youth a year would be transferred into adult court in those states, so that 12,000 and change would go up.
The NCJJ estimate is the best effort to address a blind spot in our national understanding of what happens with youth and the adult court system. The subject gets even more opaque when it comes to what happens after a youth is charged in adult court, where most Americans probably assume they get the aforementioned “adult time for adult crimes.”
The limited local research shows that is not the case. A local attempt to study the issue found some surprising results back in 2010. In 2010, a Baltimore 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.
-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
But we just have no good national data or studies on what happens in the aggregate to youth who end up in adult court. In 2010, the Justice Department greenlit a study to get into this very subject, but that project is either dead or just eternally backburnered.