Juvenile Court or Adult? New Research on the Consequences of the Decision

Juvenile courts were invented at the end of the nineteenth century and spread rapidly across the U.S. Proponents argued that juvenile offenders were more readily rehabilitated than adults, and should be handled through a different court system that focused on treatment and spared offenders the permanent stigma of a criminal conviction. By the 1990s, though, attitudes toward juvenile offenders had grown more pessimistic and punitive. Although juvenile courts were not eliminated, most states adopted reforms that either reduced the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction or facilitated the transfer of some juveniles to adult court.

More recently, the pendulum of public opinion has begun to swing back in favor of juvenile courts. Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, and South Carolina have all expanded the jurisdiction of their juvenile courts. There has also been a push in Wisconsin to raise the age of majority and keep some seventeen-year olds in juvenile court. A few states are even considering raising the age of majority to twenty-one.

Two intriguing new articles explore some of the social consequences of channeling more young offenders into juvenile court.  


In the first, the researchers focused on crime rates. There are two competing theories about the public-safety impact of sending more offenders to juvenile court. Under one view, the “soft” juvenile courts with their limited penal options are thought to have less deterrent effect than adult courts. On this view, greater use of juvenile court should lead to more crime as a result of reduced deterrence.

Under the competing view, adult courts are not thought to have appreciably greater deterrent benefits than juvenile; after all, it is teenagers we are discussing here–hardly the sort of rational decision makers on which deterrence theories are classically premised. On this view, juvenile courts offer a net crime-reducing benefit over adult courts due to their rehabilitative orientation and use of programming that is geared to the particular needs of young offenders.

Which theory is correct? The recent increase in the age of majority in a few states offers a handy natural experiment for researchers, permitting an assessment of the impact of reform on public safety.

Charles Loeffler and Aaron Chalfin focused on Connecticut, where the age of majority was raised from sixteen to seventeen in 2010, and then to eighteen in 2012. They compared public-safety results in Connecticut with what happened in other, non-reforming states, using an analytical process that gave greater weight to the states whose pre-reform trends were most similar to Connecticut’s. Relative to the non-reformers, Connecticut experienced a sharp, short-term drop in the number of arrests of sixteen-year olds after the 2010 reform,  but after about a year, the difference disappeared. In other words, raising the age of majority seemed to have no long-term effect one way or the other on the arrest data.

Of course, arrest numbers are a very imperfect proxy for actual offending, which is what we most care about. Unfortunately, it is much harder to get directly at the frequency with which sixteen-year olds are committing crimes. In order to get at least somewhat closer, Loeffler and Chalfin turned to a  different source of data: the ages of suspects (who may or may not have been arrested) found in police records and supplied by victims, officers, or other witnesses. These indications of age will not always be accurate, but, as Loeffler and Chalfin point out, they may still be reliable guides to the direction and scale of change over time.

Using these data, the researchers found no statistically significant impact from the reform. Post-reform, there was a drop in the number of sixteen-year-old crime suspects in Connecticut, but that drop did not differ appreciably from a comparable drop in the number of fifteen- and seventeen-year-old suspects in the same time period.

These results buttress the arrest analysis. Together they suggest that neither theory about the impact of reform is correct. If there are deterrence costs, those costs seem counterbalanced by rehabilitation gains. If there are rehabilitation gains, those gains seem counterbalanced by deterrence costs.

Loeffler and Chalfin conclude by suggesting that policymakers may do well to look to other considerations besides public safety when weighing an increase in the age of majority.

Their article is “Estimating the Crime Effects of Raising the Age of Majority: Evidence from Connecticut,” 16 Criminology & Pub. Pol’y 45 (2017).

In the second new article relating to this topic, the researchers seemingly responded to Loeffler and Chalfin’s call for a broader focus. Megan Bears Augustyn and Thomas Loughran tried to determine the long-term economic impact on a juvenile offender of being handled in one court system or the other. They used data collected from offenders in Arizona over a seven-year post-adjudication time period. Arizona offers multiple pathways for juveniles to be “waived” into adult court, permitting a comparison of outcomes for similarly situated offenders in each system. More specifically, Augustyn and Loughran compared outcomes from 164 juveniles waived into adult court and 393 retained in juvenile court. Almost all were convicted (or adjudicated delinquent) of a felony. In order to ensure an appropriate comparison, they attempted to control for a number of variables and deployed multiple matching techniques.

Surprisingly, Augustyn and Loughran did not find that the “retained” (i.e., juvenile court) offenders were more likely to graduate from high school or obtain a GED. If anything, the waived offenders seemed to do a little bit better with educational attainment.

Nonetheless, seven years after adjudication, the retained offenders were earning considerably more than the waived. Depending on the matching approach used, the retained offenders were earning on average somewhere between $574 and $713 more per month than the waived offenders. Using the most conservative approach, retained offenders were earning $14,979 per year, as compared to just $8,085 per year for the waived offenders.

Of course, $14,979 hardly counts as great financial success, but, as Augustyn and Loughran note, the difference between that and $8,085 per year is a difference between being above and below the federal poverty line. Additionally, they point out, the criminal convictions of the waived offenders may have disqualified them from government housing assistance and other welfare benefits–benefits that may have given a further economic boost to many of the retained offenders.

Based on the economic outcomes, Augustyn and Loughran express concern about the impact of aggressive waiver policies on income inequality in the United States. Conversely, their research suggests that raising the age of majority might provide young offenders–many of whom come from highly disadvantaged backgrounds–with a better long-term opportunity to advance in life. Of course, if Loeffler and Chalfin are correct, this benefit might be achieved without appreciable public-safety costs.

The Augustyn-Loughran paper is “Juvenile Waiver as a Mechanism of Social Stratification: A Focus on Human Capital,” forthcoming in Criminology.