NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Punishing Teen Criminals Like Criminals

May 21, 1996

Many believe that it's time to treat juvenile offenders like adults by subjecting them to adult justice. At present, we send only a few juveniles to adult courts. Most of those charged -- even repeat offenders -- land in more lenient juvenile courts. And only 60 percent even get to juvenile courts: the rest are either warned, their parents are notified or they are referred to social service programs.

Felony and misdemeanor citations vanish from a minor's criminal record when he turns 18 in most states. So many apparent first-time offenders in adult courts have already committed many serious crimes.

Those who advocate getting tough on juvenile crime say court records on violent juveniles should be opened so that the data may be used in investigations, trials and sentencing. Open records would also help prosecutors target the worst threats to society.

And trying them as adults would result in longer sentences in state prisons, rather than juvenile detention centers.

  • A University of Pennsylvania study determined that only a few violent offenders commit 60 to 75 percent of all violent juvenile offenses.
  • Research also suggests that when juvenile courts waive jurisdiction and allow defendants to be tried in adult courts -- usually for serious charges -- the certainty of punishment is increased.
  • A 1984 study from Cleveland's Center for Community Planning established that 91 percent of youths tried as adults were convicted.
  • A 1987 Justice Department study found that almost 43 percent of youths in state-run juvenile facilities had been arrested more than five times and over 20 percent more than ten times.

As for costs, New York spends more than twice as much ($85,000 a year) to keep a teen offender locked up as it does an adult prisoner.

Crime's cost to society, analysts note, is the same regardless of the criminal's age. why should repeat juvenile offenders receive lighter sentences than adults?

Source: Robert L. Sexton (Pepperdine University), "The Economics of Juvenile Crime," Investor's Business Daily, May 21, 1996.


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