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Juveniles in the Adult System - Criminal Court Careers Of Waived Juveniles

youths courts offenders sentences

Juvenile and criminal courts' sentencing practices often work at cross-purposes and frustrate rather than harmonize the social control of serious and chronic young offenders as they move between the two systems. Until the recent amendments of waiver laws, criminal courts typically sentenced chronic younger offenders more leniently than they did older offenders because of the latter's cumulative adult prior records. The lenient responses to many young career offenders when they first appear in criminal courts occur because the criteria for removal from juvenile court and adult criminal sentencing practices often lack congruence. The "punishment gap" occurs because waiver decisions involve two, somewhat different but overlapping populations of young offenders—older chronic delinquent offenders currently charged with a property crime and violent youths, some of whom also are persistent offenders.

Criminal courts respond differently to chronic offenders currently charged with a property crimes and those charged with violence. Prior to 1993, juvenile court judges transferred the largest plurality of youths for property offenses (45 percent), rather than for crimes against the person (34 percent). The nature of the offenses for which juvenile courts transferred juveniles and their relative youthfulness compared with adult defendants affected their first criminal court sentences. Although several studies of dispositions of youths tried as adults report substantial variation in sentencing practices, a policy of leniency often prevailed. Earlier studies reported that urban criminal courts incarcerated younger offenders at a lower rate than they did older offenders, that youthful violent offenders received shorter sentences than did older violent offenders, and that for about two years after becoming adults, youths benefited from informal, lenient sentencing policies. A nationwide study of judicially waived youths sentenced as adults found that criminal courts fined or placed the majority (54 percent) of transferred juveniles on probation. Even among those confined, 40 percent received maximum sentences of one year or less and only about one-quarter (28 percent) received sentences of five years or more. More recent research reports that juvenile court judges continue to waive primarily older chronic offenders charged with a property crime like burglary rather than with a violent crime, and criminal courts subsequently fined or placed on probation most transferred juveniles. Moreover, criminal court judges typically sentenced chronic property offenders convicted as adult first-time offenders more leniently than adults and often for shorter sentences than juvenile court judges imposed on comparable delinquents.

Unlike the criminal court sentences of chronic property offenders, the transfer decisions have profound consequences for waived violent youths. A study of the dispositions received by waived and retained youths whom prosecutors charged with a violent offense and who had a prior felony conviction reported that criminal courts incarcerated over 90 percent and imposed sentences five times longer than those given to youths with similar offense characteristics but who remained in juvenile court. Another study compared young robbery and burglary offenders in New York, whose excluded offenses placed them in criminal court, with a similar sample of fifteen- and sixteen-year-old youths in matched counties in New Jersey whose age and offenses placed them in juvenile courts. The New York criminal courts convicted and incarcerated a somewhat larger proportion of youths, but both justice systems imposed sentences of comparable length. Although burglary offenders in both jurisdictions recidivated at about the same rate, adult robbery offenders in New York reoffended more quickly and at a higher rate than did the juveniles in New Jersey. A study in Florida compared youths whom prosecutors direct-filed into criminal court with a matched sample of youths retained in juvenile court and found that by all measures, the youths whom prosecutors tried as adults did worse—they committed additional and more serious offenses more quickly than did those youths retained in juvenile jurisdiction. Several studies consistently indicate that criminal courts imprison more often and impose longer sentences on violent youths tried as adults than do juvenile court judges.

Because of differences in rates and types of offending by race, laws that target violent offenses indirectly have the effect of identifying larger proportions of black juveniles than white youths and exposing them to more severe adult penal consequences. As the number of waived cases increased from 1988 onward, and the proportion of violent offenses among waived cases increased, the percentage of black juveniles judicially waived to criminal court increased from 43 percent to 50 percent of all transferred youths. Although juvenile courts waived an equal proportion of black and white youths (49 percent) in 1989, by 1993 the proportion of waived white youths decreased to 45 percent while black youths comprised 52 percent of all waived juveniles.

The recent changes in waiver laws increase the numbers of chronological juveniles charged, tried, and sentenced in criminal courts. Despite legislative efforts to transfer more youths to criminal courts, surprisingly few analysts compare the rates of conviction or sentences of waived or excluded youths with those of retained juveniles or similar adult defendants. The few studies of waived juveniles' conviction rates in criminal courts suggest that criminal courts convict them at higher rates than do juvenile courts and perhaps more readily than they do other adult defendants. These higher conviction rates probably reflect prior prosecutorial and judicial screening decisions and the sample selection bias of youths waived to criminal court. A study in New York reports that criminal courts convicted youths charged with robbery at a significantly higher rate than did juvenile courts. A study in Hennepin County, Minnesota, reported higher rates of conviction and some type of incarceration for waived youths in criminal courts than for those retained in juvenile courts. A study of waived youths in seven states found that conviction rates varied from state to state and by type of offense, but that criminal courts convicted waived juveniles at about the same rates as other young adult offenders. Adult criminal courts sentence waived young offenders primarily on the basis of the seriousness of their present offense. The emphasis on the present offense reflects ordinary criminal sentencing practices as well as the failure systematically to include juvenile prior convictions in young adults' criminal histories. Criminal courts often sentence violent young offenders to substantial terms of imprisonment, including "life without parole" or the death penalty. Many studies report that waived violent youths receive sentences four or more times longer than do their retained juvenile counterparts. By contrast, waived chronic property offenders often receive more lenient sentences as adult first offenders than do their retained juvenile counterparts.

Juveniles in the Adult System - Youthfulness, Proportional Punishment, And The Death Penalty [next] [back] Juveniles in the Adult System - Transfer Back Or "reverse Waiver"

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