Juveniles Tried as Adults

The United States law prohibits anyone under the age of 18 from cigarettes, beer, or voting in the U.S Presidential elections. In most states and the District of Columbia, individuals under 18 years of age are considered juveniles. In 1899, the first juvenile court was established in Cook County Chicago, Illinois (Hemmns, Brody, Spohn, 2016, p.143). In the last few years, more juveniles are being charged as adults in the criminal justice system, as not only they are being tried but also convicted as adults. Controversies have surrounded if juveniles should be rehabilitated rather than going through the adult criminal system. Adult courts and juveniles court differ from one another. Prosecutors look at different factors before charging the juvenile as an adult. If the juvenile is found guilty of the crime, there are different sentencing options. Also, there are controversies around if juveniles are competent to stand trial and understand the criminal proceeding against them while being mentally capable for incarceration in adult facilities.

Juvenile Courts v Adult Courts

Despite the amount of similarities between the juvenile and adult criminal proceeding, some differences persist. One of the most notable differences is the role the judge plays in the court. First, a juvenile court judge takes a more active part in proceedings. The judge is expected to act rather more as a wise parent rather than as an impartial judge. A juvenile judge may initiate the questioning of an alleged offender, cross-examine witnesses, and bring up the juvenile’s background. Another difference between the juvenile and adult system is the severity of the punishment imposed by the judge. The purpose of juvenile courts is to rehabilitate a delinquent and to prevent any future behavior, instead of imposing a lengthy jail sentence. On the other hand, the adult court system is more focus on punishing the defendant according to the crime he/she allegedly committed. Adult court systems are more formal, for example, rules regarding whether evidence is admissible. Also, the juveniles do not have a right to a jury or bail versus the adult system is not part of their rights. The main focus of the adult court system is on punishment based on the crime committed. In contrast, the juvenile court system philosophy consists of restorative justice, which involves a youth offender taking responsibility for his or her behavior and redressing harm to a victim and community (Alarid, 2014, p.309).

Factors to Charge and Adult as a Juvenile

All states have provisions to move a case from juvenile courts to adult courts for severe violent crimes. Before moving the case from juvenile court to adult court, a hearing must be held for a judge to rule on the decision. According to Griffin (2003), state transfer laws define categories of juveniles their age, their past records, or the seriousness of the charges against them, or in some cases must be tried in courts of criminal jurisdiction (p.2). There are certain factors the prosecution will look at before charging a juvenile as an adult, the age of the juvenile when the crime was committed, type or level of offense, which can include anything from a person, property, public order offenses, or drug law violations- lastly, their previous criminal record.

Some states have automatic transfer laws that require juvenile cases to be transferred to adult criminal court if two factors are present, the offender is a certain age or older, and the charges involved a serious or violent offense, such as rape or murder. Cristian Fernandez, a 12-year-old boy from Jacksonville Florida, became national news in June 2011, when the state of Florida indicted him first-degree murder in the death of his two-year-old step-brother, David. State Attorney Angela Corey decided to charge Fernandez in the murder of David because the state of Florida is one of thirteen states that have not imposed a minimum age for the prosecution of a child as an adult (Equal Justice Initiative, 2016). Even if, those two factors are present, a juvenile is subject to transfer fifteen states in the United States that have presumptive wavier laws which designated a category of cases in which a waiver to criminal court is presumed to be appropriate. In some states, the type of offense is the one that matters. For example, in Alaska, the children of any age charged with any certain violent felonies are presumed to be unamenable to treatment. The state of Utah has a minimum age of 16-years-old in which they can charge a juvenile as an adult (Griffin, 2003, p.6).

Transfer Laws

In the early 80s, many states passed legal reforms intended to get tough on juvenile crime. One of those reforms was the revision of transfer, also called waiver or certification laws (Griffin, 2003). While the age at which juveniles can be transferred to the adult system varies across states, most states will transfer juveniles fourteen and older who have committed a serious violent offense. Typically, there are four categories of offenses for which juveniles of a certain age will transfer; 1) any crime, 2) capital crimes and murder, 3) certain violent felonies, and 4) certain crimes committed by juveniles with prior records (Snyder & Sickmund, 2006). Transfer, also known as waiver or certification, can be waived in three ways; statutory exclusion, this refers to state legislate statues automatically exclude certain juvenile offenders from the juvenile court jurisdiction and their cases be filed directly with adult courts. Judicial waiver, authority to transfer a case to criminal court is given to a juvenile court judge, who certifies, remands, or blinds over for criminal prosecutions. Concurrent jurisdiction, the original jurisdiction is shared by both adult and juvenile courts, in either which a prosecutor has the discretion to file (Alarid, 2014, p. 305). Under Colorado law, the youngest age a child can be tried as an adult considering he/she allegedly committed a crime, in a class one or two felony is the age of 12 years-old. The state of Colorado has specific criteria that will warrant moving a juvenile’s case to district court via direct file or transfer. The age of the juvenile, the type of offense charged, the juvenile’s criminal history, and whether the district attorney invokes the district court original jurisdiction or seeks a transfer of a pending juvenile court proceeding to the district court. One recent example of a transfer is in the state of Colorado. Jennie Bunsom a 16-yeard-old was charged with first-degree murder by a person in a position of trust in the death of her nephew, Jordan Vong. Bumson had a juvenile hearing scheduled, but her appearance was waived, and the juvenile case was dismissed since the district attorney filed a direct file and transferred to an adult court.

Blended Sentencing

Some states blended sentencing laws typically cover the same class of serious or violent crimes as the transfer laws, but juvenile blended sentencing differs from the juvenile waiver in the juvenile court has the jurisdiction to directly impose an adult sanction. For example, an adult prison, contrary to the application of adult sanction through juvenile waiver is possible only by the adult criminal court (Garland, Melton & Hass, 2012, p.136). Some states give an opportunity to the judges to impose both juvenile and adult correctional sanctions, but many people believe is that by doing so the juvenile is exposed to dangers in adult prisons at a very young age. Blended sentencing has been designed to create a middle ground between traditional juvenile and adult sanctions (Alarid, 2014, p.310). According to Garland, Melton, and Hass (2012), there are three types of blended sentencing today, and all of them are widely used. The juvenile-exclusive model, this model has only been used in the state of New Mexico, it gives the judge the opportunity to impose either a juvenile or adult sentence at the judge discretion.

The second most used is the juvenile-inclusive model. This model allows judges to impose both adult and juvenile sentences, for example, the judge can impose a five-year sentence in a juvenile detention center and suspend the adult sentence, but if the juvenile fails to comply with the juvenile sentence, then he/she will finish the rest of the sentence in the adult corrections. Currently, twelve states use this model. Lastly, the juvenile-contiguous model. This model allows the juvenile court the authority to give a youth a juvenile sentence followed immediately by an adult sentence. Under this model, the juvenile is retained under juvenile jurisdiction until the state declared age of majority (18 years old). Currently, three states use this model Colorado, Rhode Island, and Texas. Thus, blended sentencing varies from state to state in its application and depending on the state the minimum age at which this type of sentencing can be applied varies greatly. For example, in the state of Massachusetts, the juvenile must be at least fourteen years old to receive a blended sentence, and only for certain felonies, on the other hand in the state of Alaska the juvenile must be sixteen or older. The state of Colorado has no minimum age requirement to administer a blended sentence.

Juveniles Competent to Stand Trial

Questions have arisen if a defendant is competent to stand trial. Moreover, the question is being asked if a juvenile is competent for court proceedings. Trial competency is not insanity, nor an inquiry into criminal responsibility. It is rather, the standard for trial competency, which was set out in Dusky v U.S. in 1960 directs the court to inquire “whether the accused has sufficient present ability to consult with his lawyer with a reasonable degree of rational understanding and whether he has a rational as well as a factual understanding of the proceedings against him” (p. 402). As noted, competency to stand trial means that the defendant needs to have sufficient ability to comprehend the significance of the criminal proceedings against him/her, the potential outcomes, and the ability to participate in the trial process and decision making about any relevant trial issues. How is adjudicative competence conceptualized? Well, mental health professionals and the courts have identified several types of abilities that are significant for the two broad capacities to which Dusky refers too. McGarry and associates (Laboratory of Community Psychiatry, 1973), developed a list that was relevant to the Dusky standards, and it was organized and broken down into four categories by Grisso (2000, p.142).

How Are Juveniles Affected While Incarcerated?

Juveniles who are charged and tried as adults are often placed in adult facilities, and in many instances are not getting an appropriate education and are subject to various dangers, anything from mental and physical. Many juveniles housed in adult facilities do not have access to any education or vocational studies. Some of the reasons include long wait lists, not enough funds to create programs or to staff the currently available programs to expand. As you can imagine, determining how much victimization occurs in jails and prisons is hard to detect because sometimes inmates are afraid to report due to retaliation. According to Daigle & Muftic (2016), gendered difference discovered in physical victimization is that when females are physically victimized, they are more likely to be victimized by another inmate that are males; males are more likely to be victimized by a staff member. On the other hand, younger, white inmates are more likely to experience physical victimization perpetrated by other inmates than by staff (p. 227). In adult facilities, juveniles are at a higher risk of victimization more than “any other group of incarcerated persons,” according to the National Prison Rape Elimination Commission report (2009).

Also, juveniles in adult facilities are in the same environment as older and more experienced criminals, which means picking up bad habits from them. Juveniles will tend to pick up negative behaviors, and that can lead to getting in trouble while in prions/jail. Moreover, juveniles are not just affected physically, but also mentally. In some instances, juveniles are placed in solitary confinement for their safety, to protect them from older or dangerous inmates. They are typically in a small cell for about 23 hours a day; restrictions include but not limited to radio, television, limited reading material and contact with staff and peers. In recent U.S. Supreme Court cases such as Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama have focused their attention on the immaturity of the adolescent` brain. These cases, along with the evolving developmental neuroscience have suggested that teenagers are especially vulnerable to the astonishing psychological stresses associated with placement in solitary confinement. According to Andrew Clark (2017) in a study conducted of one hundred completed suicides in juvenile detention center facilitates found that fifty percent happened at the time when they were confined to their rooms with only seventeen percent of the deceased on suicide precaution status at the time of their death.


Despite the differences among the juveniles and adults the United States law will continue to recognize that if a crime has been committed the prosecutor has to charge and tired the offender with the crime regardless of the age. The prosecutor in charge of the case has to determine the type of offense committed, the age of the offender, and the past criminal history, if any, to decide if the case should stay in juvenile court, and if so, will the judge impose a blended sentence. Or the case will be waived to adult court and the juvenile be tried and convicted as an adult.


Alarid, L. F. (2015). Community-Based Corrections (10th ed., pp. 300-323). Belmont: Cengage Learning.

Bonnie, R.J., & Grisso, T. (2000). Adjudicative competence and youthful offenders. In T. Grisso & R.G. Schwartz (Eds.), Youth on trial: A developmental perspective on criminal justice. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Clark, A. B. (2017). Juvenile solitary confinement as a form of child abuse. The Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law, 45(3), 350.

Dusky v. United States, 362 U.S. 402 (1960).

Garland, B., Melton, M., & Hass, A. (2012). Public opinion on juvenile blended sentencing. Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, 10(2), 135-154. doi:10.1177/1541204011418991

Griffin, P. (2003, October). Trying and Sentencing Juveniles as Adults: An analysis of State Transfer and Blended Sentencing Laws [Electronic version]. National Center for Juvenile Justice.

Grisso, T., Steinberg, L., Woolard, J., Cauffman, E., Scott, E., Graham, S., . . . Schwartz, R. (2003). Juveniles' competence to stand trial: A comparison of adolescents' and adults' capacities as trial defendants. Law and Human Behavior, 27(4), 333-363. doi:http://dx.doi.org.aurarialibrary.idm.oclc.org/10.1023/A:1024065015717

Hemmens, C., Brody, D. C., & Spohn, C. (2017). Criminal Courts A Contemporary Perspective (3rd ed., pp. 179-180). Thousands Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Laboratory of Community Psychiatry, Harvard Medical School (1973). Competency to stand trial and mental illness. Rockville, MD: Department of Health Education and Welfare.

Snyder, H. N., & Sickmund, M. (2006, March). Juvenile offenders and victims: 2006 National Report. U.S Department of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ojjdp.gov/ojstatbb/nr2006/downloads/NR2006.pdf

Teigen, A. (2017, April 17). Juvenile age of jurisdiction & transfer to adult court laws. In National Conference of State Legislature. Retrieved December 2, 2018, from http://www.ncsl.org/research/civil-and-criminal-justice/juvenile-age-of-jurisdiction-and-transfer-to-adult-court-laws.aspx

Thirteen states have no minimum age for adult prosecution of children. (2016, September). In Equal Justice Initiative. Retrieved November 30, 2018, from https://eji.org/news/13-states-lack-minimum-age-for-trying-kids-as-adults

Walton, R. B. (2009, June). National Prison Rape Elimination Commission. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/226680.pdf   

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