Hard Truth: Serving Adult Time Makes More Crime
Jennifer M. Balboni and James Alan Fox

The recent shooting death of a Florida schoolteacher, allegedly at the hands of a 13-year-old student, has again stirred debate over how best to respond to juvenile violent crime. Echoing widespread public sentiment, the posture in the political arena has been decidedly punitive.

Typical of sound-bite crime control rhetoric, Alabama Governor Don Siegelman suggested that "adult crime should equal adult time." His state and most others have significantly increased the flow of juvenile offenders into adult courts and prisons.

Since 1985, the number of juvenile offenders prosecuted in adult court, and jailed in adult prisons, has roughly doubled. Pending federal legislation would push the numbers even higher. And it is not only young killers and rapists who are seeing the inside of adult prison walls: nearly a third were sentenced for nonviolent offenses.

The problem is, this popular get-tough approach is backfiring. New research shows that forcing juveniles to serve adult time often equals more crime in the long run, not less.

Northeastern University criminologist Donna Bishop, working with colleagues in Florida, undertook an extensive project tracking comparable groups of juveniles - some transferred to adult court and others who remained in the juvenile system. These researchers found that, once freed, the young offenders who had been prosecuted as adults returned to a life of crime more frequently than those who had stayed in the juvenile system. And the type of crime they returned to was more serious.

Instead of "reforming" or scaring juvenile offenders into becoming law-abiding citizens, adult punishments may actually increase their propensity for criminal behavior. Mixing impressionable young offenders among hardened criminals, it turns out, makes the wrong kind of impression upon them. If adult prisons are not exactly schools for crime, it seems, then they are at least study halls.

Research on the deterrent effects of juvenile transfer procedures, like those proposed in the pending federal legislation, also suggests that this may not be the best way to dissuade other potential young scofflaws.

Criminologists Simon Singer and David McDowall evaluated whether the landmark and widely-publicized New York Juvenile Offender Law of 1978, which prescribed adult prosecution for violent offenders as young as age 14 (and 13 for murder), had any impact on juvenile crime rates. By comparing trends in New York City and Philadelphia, they found that the threat of adult time had no effect on lowering rates of serious juvenile crime.

In a similar study, social scientists Eric Jensen and Linda Metsger compared rates of juvenile violent crime before and after Idaho's law increasing the transfer of juveniles to the adult system. Not only did they see no reduction in juvenile crime, but also they found that serious juvenile violence rose after the transfer law was enacted - while in two neighboring states, the rates declined significantly.

There is, of course, a time and a place for transferring particular juveniles - a select few - into adult court. As long as the juvenile court model has existed, certain repeat, violent, chronic offenders have been moved up to the adult system. Some offenders have proven through their recidivism that they are not amenable to the treatment approach offered in juvenile facilities.

These difficult decisions can and should be made by juvenile court judges through a full assessment of the youngster's criminal and personal histories, not by legislators guided by worst-case scenarios. Legislating to the exception is hardly a smart method of crime reduction.

The pending federal legislation, however, proposes sweeping transfer procedures, not only for hard-core juveniles, but also for many lesser offenders charged with drug or property crimes. Despite the proposed law's title - the Violent and Repeat Juvenile Offender Accountability and Rehabilitation Act of 1999 - the transfer criteria make no mention of prior records, age, or level of crime severity. In fact, violent offenders often take a back seat to drug offenders in this bill.

Another worrisome feature of the bill offers financial incentives for states to follow the federal government's lead in trying more young offenders in adult court. Finally, it allows prosecutors, rather than judges, to decide if a juvenile should be charged as an adult. This is like letting a pitcher, rather than the umpire, call balls and strikes.

From the point of view of crime victims, it matters little whether their assailant is 14 or 44. A purely retributive notion of justice would ignore an offender's age in assessing the extent of harm. But juvenile offenders do not necessarily deserve adult-like punishment, even though they may commit adult-like crimes.

Teenagers may look like adults, dress like adults, act like adults, even shoot like adults, but they reason like children. Recent evidence from neurological studies supports the view that juveniles have a limited capacity for understanding consequences.

According to Deborah Yurgelun-Todd, director of Neuropsychology and Cognitive Neuroimaging at McLean Hospital, the frontal lobe portion of the brain, which controls the ability to think matters through fully, does not tend to develop until late adolescence or early adulthood. Indeed, it has long been accepted as true that teenagers are typically impulsive - in a sense, temporary sociopaths.

Given their limited capacity for fully appreciating the negative impact of their behavior, teenagers do not deserve equal punishment with adults, except perhaps for the most chronic offenders. Diminished capacity should mean diminished punishability, especially for nonhabitual offenders.

Often these are juveniles who think little and care even less about the future, who don't expect to live past their 21st birthdays. The prospect of a long-term prison sentence or even the death penalty will not dissuade them in the least.

Statistics indicate that most youthful offenders "age out" of violent criminal activity by their early 20s. Thus, locking up juveniles for decades seems both ineffective and inefficient. As a measure designed to protect public safety, it is overkill.

For the vast majority of offenders who flirt with trouble during their impulsive and reckless youth, community-based alternatives provide appropriate life skills and education to guide them into becoming productive citizens. In addition, the restorative approach to justice - making offenders face the human suffering caused by their actions - has been implemented successfully in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and in some parts of the United States.

The restorative model forces offenders, despite their developmental limitations, to pay their debt to society not by serving time (although in some cases this may be necessary for public safety), but through a tangible effort to make restitution and to improve their community. It promotes offender accountability, something that simply trying a juvenile as an adult fails to do.

In recent years, the juvenile justice system has been a conveninent whipping boy for those looking to fix blame for rising levels of youth crime. Critics such as US Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah have called it "inadequate." He may be right, but for different reasons.

Changes brought about by US Supreme Court decisions of the past three decades, although well-intentioned, have in some respects disabled the juvenile system, pushing it from its original paternalistic posture toward a more adversarial model, like that of the adult criminal court. Still, it manages to provide quality services to thousands of delinquents every year.

The juvenile court, as it reaches its 100th anniversary, is not without redemption. Before throwing the baby out with the bath water, Congress should recognize the strengths of the system and invest in strategies that help change reckless delinquents into responsible adults. In the final analysis, getting smart works better than getting tough in terms of reducing juvenile crime.

Jennifer M. Balboni is a senior research associate in the Center for Criminal Justice Policy Research and James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice, both at Northeastern University.

Published July 2, 2000