Findings from the project’s four transfer studies can be summarized as follows:

For the most part, the studies indicated that transfer is reserved for the most serious cases and the most serious juvenile offenders.
  • Juvenile court judges largely concur with prosecutors as to which juveniles should be transferred to criminal court. These studies show that the juvenile court supports the prosecutor’s request for transfer in approximately four out of five cases—indicating that these two key decisionmakers generally agree about who should be waived and who should not. Anecdotal evidence from the Utah study, in fact, indicates that in many cases in which a waiver petition was denied, the denial was based on a prosecutor’s recommendation to withdraw the petition (following a plea bargaining agreement). It may be that the high proportion of judicial approval of waiver requests indicates that prosecutors are able to gauge which cases juvenile court judges will agree to waive and request waivers in only those cases. However, the study of exclusions in Pennsylvania implies that criminal court judges agree with juvenile court judges as to which youth should receive criminal court sanctions.

  • Transfer decision criteria are consistent with common interpretations of law. For the most part, the studies indicated that transfer is reserved for the most serious cases and the most serious juvenile offenders. Youth are most likely to be transferred to criminal court if they have injured someone with a weapon (regardless of their background or court history) or if they have a long juvenile court record. The studies, however, revealed some jurisdictional variations in the relative emphasis given to certain criteria.

    In Utah, for example, juveniles who did not use a weapon or injure their victim were more likely to be approved for waiver if they had five or more prior formal referrals. In South Carolina, the likelihood of waiver was higher for juveniles with just two prior formal referrals. These differing thresholds may stem from other differences in the juvenile justice systems in the two States. Utah, for example, has a relatively high juvenile arrest rate but arrests a disproportionate number of juveniles for less serious offenses. Utah’s 1997 larceny arrest rate for juveniles was double the national rate, but its arrest rates for burglary and violent crime were approximately 30 percent lower than the national rates. In comparison, South Carolina’s 1997 juvenile arrest rate for larceny theft was somewhat below the national average, and its arrest rates for burglary and violent crimes were somewhat higher than the national rates. Such variations reflect differences in community attitudes toward involving the formal juvenile justice system with the law-violating behavior of youth. By casting a wider net and drawing more juveniles with less serious offenses into its juvenile justice system, Utah may prevent juveniles from accumulating serious records until they have five or more referrals. Youth in Utah more easily compile longer juvenile court records. Consequently, a Utah judge’s evaluation of the seriousness of the youth’s court history may employ a different metric than that of a judge in South Carolina.

  • Recidivism after residential placement continued to be a key factor in the waiver decision.
    Waiver decisions adjust to changing practice. The studies reveal that judges continued to waive those juveniles who failed in custody, even when custody occurred at an early stage in a youth’s court career. It appears at first that between the mid-1980’s and mid-1990’s, waiver in Pennsylvania was modified by the public’s concerns about a “new breed” of juvenile offender. In response to these concerns, more and more youth with shorter juvenile court careers were waived. Unlike the earlier waiver group, a smaller proportion of the more recent waiver group in Pennsylvania had previously been placed on probation (51 percent of 1994 group versus 65 percent of 1986 group). However, approximately the same proportion (about 60 percent) of the youth waived in 1994 (who had shorter court careers) had been placed in custody at least once prior to the waiver incident. Thus, rather than changing the waiver decision criteria, the juvenile court seems to have changed its broader handling of cases, becoming more likely to place juveniles in a facility without first trying probation. Recidivism after residential placement continued to be a key factor in the waiver decision.

  • The system adapts to large changes in structure. The structure of transfer decisions has changed in response to the public’s concern over the increase in juvenile violence. Data in these studies confirm that the decisionmaking process will adapt to changing legal conditions and social pressure. For example, the study of the implementation of Pennsylvania’s exclusion law found that even though the justice system adopted the State’s new set of rules and followed new paths, case processing resulted in the same outcomes that would have occurred if the rules had not changed. There had been an expectation that the changed statutory exclusion provision would result in many, many more juveniles being tried in criminal court and in many of these youth ending up incarcerated in adult correctional facilities. However, Pennsylvania’s exclusion legislation has had little overall impact on either the number of juveniles handled in criminal court or the proportion incarcerated in adult correctional facilities.

    There was also an underlying assumption that transfer decisionmaking by juvenile court judges in Pennsylvania tended to favor juveniles and that decisionmaking by criminal court judges under the new provisions would be different. However, this study found that, in Pennsylvania, the decisionmaking process followed by criminal court judges regarding decertification was much the same as that followed by juvenile court judges regarding waiver.

  • Comparisons between waived and nonwaived juveniles must be made carefully. Researchers, policymakers, and others who make use of research results must keep in mind that groups of waived and nonwaived juveniles differ in many respects. Simple comparisons are likely to be misleading and, thus, are inappropriate. Careful matching of waived and nonwaived juveniles on multiple characteristics, although often difficult, is virtually a prerequisite to any such comparisons. The studies presented in this Summary find that certain characteristics of the waiver incident (e.g., weapon use, victim injury, age of the offender, and nature of the court history) are important variables in transfer decisionmaking. Researchers should include such characteristics as matching variables when attempting to compare juvenile and criminal court processing of juvenile offenders and their case outcomes.

Juvenile Transfers to Criminal Court in the 1990's:
Lessons Learned From Four Studies
August 2000