Prior to January 1995, South Carolina law permitted only one form of juvenile transfer: judicial waiver. In South Carolina, the upper age of original juvenile court jurisdiction is 16, and persons 17 or older are considered adults for purposes of criminal prosecution. This study focuses on the years 1985 through 1994, during which time South Carolina’s waiver provisions remained the same. These provisions permitted judicial waiver if:
Waiver legislation directed courts to waive such juveniles to criminal court if it was in the best interests of the child or the public to do so.
South Carolina’s Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ), formerly known as the Department of Youth Services, is an umbrella agency responsible for nearly all juvenile justice services in the State, including intake, diversion, detention, probation, corrections, and aftercare. The only juvenile justice functions not under DJJ’s direct control are the functions of the prosecutor and the judge.
DJJ, which served as the lead agency in coordinating data collection for the South Carolina study, is the repository of all data relating to juvenile offender characteristics and family court processing of cases in South Carolina. DJJ has an online statewide offender tracking system that records all contacts with the family court for delinquency and status offenses. Accurate data on the prevalence of transfer as a family court disposition were available through this system from the early 1980’s onward, supporting the longitudinal study of transfer actions in relation to offender characteristics.
Because a variety of different agencies are involved in processing and supervising adult criminal cases, final dispositional data on transfers were far more difficult to obtain than particulars of transfer decisions in family court. DJJ had access to data files from the Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services (PPP) and the South Carolina Department of Corrections (SCDC), which allowed the extraction of criminal court dispositional information for transferred juveniles who were convicted and sentenced to either probation or incarceration. The agencies have a long and positive history of sharing data in areas of mutual interest or concern. DJJ’s experience with earlier longitudinal research on a 1967 male birth cohort (Rivers and Trotti, 1989) helped to delineate a significant portion of this process.
Using names, birth dates, and other personal identifiers, DJJ personnel matched the records stored in the DJJ automated information system on cases considered for waiver with the records in the automated records of South Carolina’s adult probation and corrections departments. In addition, DJJ staff used facilities of the State’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) to obtain information on adult arrests and the initial processing of criminal court cases.
From this information, the project team developed data files containing the complete juvenile court histories of all youth for whom a waiver was requested in South Carolina during the 10 years from 1985 through 1994 and showing the specific disposition of the waiver action at the adult criminal court level. Data elements included the offender’s date of birth, sex, and race; his or her history of drug use; offenses charged, waived, or adjudicated; and dates of case disposition and processing (see appendix B). Thus, the South Carolina study was designed to model the decisionmaking process in the State’s family court between 1985 and 1994, a period when statutory provisions for waiver in the State were stable.
In the 10-year period from 1985 through 1994, South Carolina family courts considered 595 requests for waiver to criminal court, involving 557 juveniles. The vast majority of waiver requests involved males (95 percent), most involved blacks (80 percent), and most involved juveniles age 16 or older at the time the case was referred to family court (table 1). As noted above, 17-year-olds are generally considered adults in South Carolina; however, in South Carolina, the family court’s jurisdiction over delinquents for dispositional purposes can extend until a youth’s 21st birthday. Therefore, youth age 17 or older were candidates for judicial waiver when they were under the continuing jurisdiction of the juvenile court for a previous offense committed before the youth was 17.
For 7 percent of the waiver request cases, the juvenile had been the subject of a previous waiver request.2 Although most waiver requests involved juveniles with at least one formally handled referral prior to the waiver request case, at least one previous adjudication, and at least one prior court-ordered probation placement, less than half of the juveniles had a prior court-ordered residential placement (table 2). Most waiver request cases involved a serious person or serious property offense (table 3). Aggravated assault was the most common charge, followed by robbery.
Overall, from 1985 through 1994, the juvenile court in South Carolina approved 80 percent of waiver requests (474 of 595). Analysis of offender and case characteristics reveals factors key to the judicial decision to waive (table 4). The juvenile court was significantly more likely to approve waiver requests made in cases involving males than in cases involving females.3 Waiver approval was somewhat less likely for white juveniles than for black juveniles, although the difference was not statistically significant. The court was significantly less likely to waive cases involving youth age 15 or younger than cases involving older youth. The study found no difference in the likelihood of waiver between youth who never used drugs and youth who had a history of casual or habitual drug use.
In general, the juvenile court was significantly more likely to waive juveniles who had extensive court histories (table 5). Juveniles with five or more prior referrals to court had a significantly greater probability of waiver than juveniles with four or fewer prior referrals. In addition, juveniles with four or fewer prior referrals to juvenile court had a significantly greater likelihood of waiver than youth with no court history. The study found a similar pattern for previous formally handled referrals. The juvenile court was significantly more likely to waive juveniles who had two or more previous formal cases than juveniles who had only one previous formal case or none. Juveniles with prior adjudications were significantly more likely to be waived than juveniles who had never been adjudicated. Similarly, those with prior court-ordered probation placements were significantly more likely than those without prior probation placements to be waived. The same pattern was true for prior court-ordered residential placements.
Although the court was significantly more likely to waive juveniles with extensive court histories, substantial proportions of juveniles in each of the “no priors” categories were waived. For example, among waiver request cases involving juveniles who had never before been referred to juvenile court, 66 percent were approved for waiver, indicating that the court was considering factors other than court history when deciding whether to waive these juveniles to criminal court.
The study found a relationship between the seriousness of the offense charged in the waiver incident and the probability that a juvenile would be approved for waiver once a waiver request was made. The South Carolina court was significantly more likely to waive juveniles who had been charged with serious person or serious property offenses than those charged with other offenses (table 6). Among the less serious offense categories, drug cases were somewhat more likely to be waived than less serious person, less serious property, or public order cases.
Analyses documented the joint effect of case/offender characteristics on the waiver decision. More specifically, a juvenile’s offense history interacted with the seriousness of the offense charged in the waiver incident (table 7). Cases involving juveniles with one or more prior offenses who were charged with a serious person or property offense were significantly more likely to be approved for waiver than juveniles in other waiver request cases87 percent of such cases were approved for waiver. Juveniles with no prior adjudications in juvenile court were significantly more likely to be approved for transfer if they had been charged with a serious person offense82 percent of such cases were approved for waiver. Juveniles charged with less serious offenses were significantly more likely to be waived if they had two or more prior adjudications79 percent of such cases were approved for waiver, compared with 57 percent of cases with fewer than two prior adjudications.
The South Carolina study compared dispositions of cases approved for waiver with dispositions of cases retained in juvenile court (table 8). Waived cases were more likely to result in a confinement disposition than cases retained in juvenile court (66 percent, compared with 35 percent). In addition, 50 percent of the cases retained in juvenile court were ordered to probation. Probation, however, was used infrequently in cases disposed in criminal court (8 percent). Compared with cases retained in juvenile court, a greater proportion of cases waived to criminal court were dismissed (25 percent, compared with 16 percent). This dispositional pattern is consistent with the study’s findings that transferred cases involve offenses that are more serious and offenders who are less amenable to traditional juvenile court sanctions.
2 Unlike many States, South Carolina does not have a “once an adult, always an adult” provision. Juveniles are referred to family court for offenses until they turn 17even if they have been previously convicted of an offense in criminal court.
3 The use of the term “significant” throughout the remainder of this Summary refers to statistical significance (p values < 0.05). Differences that did not reach statistical significance are not described as significant.