In this Washington Examiner commentary, John Roman explains why automatically putting juvenile offenders in adult detention is a mistake: it can turn the teenagers into hardened criminals and sends the message that society has written them off.
The Washington Examiner, January 5, 2008—Despite the seriousness of some teen crime, transferring more juveniles to adult facilities is a mistake. While outgoing D.C. Attorney General Linda Singer is trying to reduce this practice for 16- and 17- year-olds, transfers are becoming increasingly common.
Sending a teen to serve time in an adult facility tells the teen, his or her family, and the community that society has written this kid off. Before moving more juveniles to adult jurisdiction, the District should find out whether get-tough policies like juvenile transfers actually make our streets safer.
Will young people released from adult jails behave better than teens detained in the juvenile justice system? Will all crimes committed by young people fall in number and seriousness? Does it save the city money to transfer more teens?
In sum, does it make sense to treat all youthful offenders the same as the tiny number of real sociopaths who need to be locked up indefinitely? Several studies suggest the answer to all these questions is no.
A November 2007 report from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention finds that teens sent to adult facilities commit more crimes on average than those sent to juvenile facilities. A study in New Jersey found that juveniles transferred to adult facilities are 39 percent more likely to be rearrested for a violent offense than are teens in juvenile detention.
In Pennsylvania, teens housed in adult prisons for a violent offense had a 77 percent greater likelihood of being rearrested for a new violent offense than youth in juvenile detention. Juveniles jailed as adults in Minnesota were 26 percent more likely to be reconvicted. A study in Florida found similar results for teens arrested for violent felonies.
Second, transferring more juveniles to brandish the threat of adult punishment doesn’t seem to deter other teens from criminal activity. A study in Idaho found increased violence after a law mandating transfer of violent juvenile felons passed. Studies in New York and Pennsylvania saw no positive effect of transfers on crime.
Finally, increasing transfers doesn’t appear to save money. While the juvenile system’s intensive services cost more than jail does, most youth—especially violent offenders—stay longer in adult jails than they would in juvenile facilities, boosting costs. And, CDC statistics suggest that the community will experience more crime (and more costs from crime) over the long-run.
A 2006 study by the Urban Institute and the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall Center for Children got to the heart of this matter. Testing the cost-effectiveness of Connecticut laws giving jurisdiction of all 16- and 17-year-olds to the adult system, we found that moving these kids back into the juvenile system would save about $3 for every dollar in new costs. Last spring, Connecticut's governor signed a law that ends the wholesale transfer of 16- and 17-year-old youth to adult courts.
Prison is essentially crime college. It provides less rehabilitation, while introducing teens to older inmates’ beliefs and habits. Adult incarceration may keep juvenile offenders off the street a little longer, but at what cost? Sending youth to adult prisons is likely to be more expensive than the alternative.
The best research points to the long-term benefits of entrusting kids to the juvenile justice system. Before giving up on more D.C. youth, the District needs to weigh the costs of treating kids like hardened criminals and the benefits of a different approach—one that states that have done their homework have already adopted.
John Roman is a senior research associate in the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its sponsors, staff, or trustees.