Lack of Data From States Hinders Implementation of Effective Juvenile Justice

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John Last 1The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released a report this month that discusses juvenile transfers to adult court and the problem of gathering reliable information about this practice. The authors give a brief history of the practice of transferring youth, and an overview of the wide variety of laws and practices that states use when trying kids as adults. Several of their conclusions stand out.

The practice of transferring youth to criminal court through anything other than a case-by-case court order grew nationally from the mid-1980s until the mid 1990s. Laws allowing for judicial transfer have existed since nearly the beginning of the separation of juvenile and adult cases in the 19th century.  Before 1970, only two states, Florida and Georgia, had prosecutorial discretion. Automatic transfers were rare as well, and usually applied to capital cases. Only eight states had such laws before 1970. Now both types of transfer are common, and judicial review is used in far fewer cases. “Only 15 states now rely solely on traditional hearing-based, judicially controlled forms of transfer,” states the report. These are the only cases that are consistently and reliably reported, and for which a decent set of data exists.

Perhaps most important for policy makers and others interested in juvenile justice is the fact that no set of data exists that “tracks cases that bypass juvenile courts.” Cases that first go to juvenile court and are then transferred are reported to the National Juvenile Court Data Archive, and are thus easy to analyze. The problem is that this form of transfer has become the least common nationally. Most transfers come from statutory exclusion, prosecutorial exception and jurisdictional age laws. Technically, the application of jurisdictional age laws is not a transfer at all, since it classifies the person charged as an adult. According to the authors these laws may account for sending an additional 175,000 youth to criminal court.

Many of these laws were developed in response to a perceived rise in violent crime by juveniles starting in the mid ‘80S, and were passed in an effort to protect the public and deter crime in juveniles. Even though violent crime committed by youth peaked in the mid ‘90S, little has been done to change the transfer laws since 2000.

It is unclear whether or not the laws have worked. Most studies seem to indicate that transferring cases has little impact on deterrence. Opponents of trying kids as adults point to these studies, while those who support the laws continue to believe in their effectiveness. The real problem is there is no direct way to analyze the results of these legislative solutions. Without a good data set it is difficult to draw any objective conclusions. As the authors say, “The scarcity of information on cases involving youth prosecuted under exclusion and prosecutorial discretion laws presents a serious problem for those wishing to assess the workings, effectiveness, and overall impact of these laws.” Until something is done to address this issue the debate will be based on anecdote and partial information. These do not make a good basis for policy making.

Congress can address this issue by tying federal funding for state juvenile justice systems to mandatory reporting. This reporting should include the number of cases, types of crimes and statistical information about the offenders. With this information in hand the approaches to reducing juvenile crime can be examined and compared.

Is it necessary that states be mandated to do this? Of course the states will be quick to maintain their rights. This is clearly seen from their wildly divergent practices. The fact that the same person can legally be an adult in one state and a minor in another points out the arbitrary nature of legally classifying kids. How do we know what really works? Without the data, whether provided willingly or not, it is impossible to know. States certainly want the money the federal government gives them, so why aren’t they willing to cooperate in something that will benefit them and others?

There are as many strategies for dealing with juvenile offenders as there are states. Some of them are bound to be more effective than others. The gathering of solid data is something that should garner bipartisan support. Instead of pointing to how proud they are of getting tough on kids perhaps lawmakers can actually do some good.

The political expediency of “get tough” policies has given way to new concerns over limited budgets. The economic crisis has effected more change in the last few years than during the nearly 20 years of relative prosperity. This is a sad statement about our politicians, whatever their stripe.

Maybe now, with their backs against the wall, they will finally act based on the needs of the people instead of their own need to be reelected. One can hope.

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