Over the past decade, legislatures across the nation have enacted a variety of laws and policies to "criminalize" delinquency by adjudicating and punishing adolescent offenders as adults. This issue has once again been taken up by the Congress in bills designed to "get tough" on youth crime, and to provide fiscal incentives for states to follow suit. Despite the steady decline in youth crime nationally, stronger laws to punish juvenile offenders are a centerpiece of crime policy for policy-makers and elected officials in nearly every statehouse in the U.S. The primary focus of these laws is to remove adolescent offenders from the juvenile justice system and adjudicate their cases in the adult courts. In addition, several states punish juveniles as adults, including incarceration with adults in state prisons. Despite recent evidence of the adverse effects of these laws on public safety and recidivism, the federal systems and nearly every state have expanded the use of adult court and punishment for adolescent offenders.

For many years, this issue has been a divisive question among legal scholars and policy-makers. However, the pace of change, the severity of the new laws, and the potential for unintended negative consequences add new urgency to these questions. Yet debate among lawmakers has been based on rhetoric and emotion in lieu of systematic policy analysis and research information. Moreover, this heated rhetoric has not permitted a careful examination of the costs and benefits of "get tough" policies, in particular the unintended consequences and limitations of "getting tough" on adolescents and on their communities. This is an especially important consideration because the weight of policies to toughen punishment for adolescent offenders has fallen heavily and disproportionately on minority youths from predominantly minority communities.

There is little information on the comparative advantages of juvenile versus criminal court jurisdiction on recidivism. Only three studies have compared recidivism rates for adolescents sentenced as juveniles or adults; two of the three studies were single-site studies that used statistical controls to match adolescents in juvenile with their counterparts in criminal court. Two of these studies showed that adolescents sentenced and incarcerated as adults had higher recidivism rates compared to matched samples of adolescents tried as juveniles. However, these studies encompassed a narrow range of the mechanisms for relocating adolescents to criminal court, and a narrow range of contexts and offense categories. Accordingly, we know little about the consequences of adopting one waiver policy alternative or another in terms of crime control and public safety. There has been
no systematic research analyzing age-crime-sanction relationships to determine which judicial forum or type of sanction more effectively controls recidivism and safeguards the public.

Along with several other funding partners, including the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Rockefeller Foundation, the Network is supporting research that compares the effects of juvenile versus adult correctional interventions on the developmental, social and behavioral outcomes of adolescent felony offenders. This natural experiment compares the conditions of confinement and subsequent behaviors and outcomes of matched samples of youths from urban areas in states that are in close geographical proximity, but that differ in the laws and policies that govern the correctional placements of adolescent felony offenders. The study has two chief goals:

  • to assess the conditions of confinement and correctional interventions for adolescents in the juvenile versus adult correctional systems; and
  • to compare the impacts of juvenile and criminal court sanctions on the mental health, human capital, social integration, and antisocial behavior of young offenders during the transition from adolescence to early adulthood.

Progress to Date

The Dual Sanctions Study is currently in the field. We hope to have preliminary results to report in 2005.