NNPA — Only eight states publicly report the race and ethnicity of juveniles transferred to adult courts for criminal prosecution, the Justice Department has found, and it’s no wonder that more states do not. Those that do are sending disproportionate numbers of African-American and Hispanic teenagers to face the possibility of the most serious punishment that a juvenile offender can face—getting locked up in a state prison alongside hardened adult criminals.
During a juvenile crime wave that began in the 1980s and peaked in 1994, almost every state expanded the range of juvenile offenders who could face conviction in adult court for serious or repeat offenses, the Justice Department says in a new report.
Since 1994 states have been trying many fewer teenagers in regular courts, but at least 14,000 faced that sort of prosecution in 2009, according to information available from 21 states.
State lawmakers may believe their tough legislation has led to the drop in juvenile offending, but they are deluding themselves if they do. It has been long established that the biggest factor behind crime rates are demographic trends: the more teenagers in the population, the more juvenile crime, and vice versa. Similarly, adult crime rates are strongly associated with the number of people under age 30, particularly males.
Current members of state legislatures would be more on target asking whether adult transfer laws have served any beneficial purpose. No national study has been conducted on the impact of those laws, but most state-level research indicates they do not reduce juvenile crime.
“The weight of the evidence suggests that state transfer laws have little or no tendency to deter would-be juvenile criminals,” concludes the report from the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. “Possible explanations include juveniles’ general ignorance of transfer laws, tendency to discount or ignore risks in decision-making, and lack of impulse control.”
The report suggests legislatures take another look at the laws: “States have shown little tendency to reverse or even reconsider the expanded transfer laws already in place. Despite the steady decline in juvenile crime and violence rates since 1994, there has as yet been no discernible pendulum swing away from transfer.”
Less than a paragraph in the report is devoted to racial-ethnic disparities in adult prosecution of juveniles, perhaps because so few states make those breakdowns available. That limited pool of information provides another reason for legislative reconsideration—one that African-American and Hispanic lawmakers should push.
According to the report, “In Florida most transferred youth in 2008 were black (54%) whereas whites (29%) and Hispanics (12%) were considerably underrepresented. By contrast transfers were predominantly Hispanic in Arizona (57%) and California (56%).”
To put that undesirable Black majority in Florida into context, the state had the highest rate of adult transfer of the states that make report such information. In 2007-2008, Florida sent a whopping 3,600 juveniles of all races into adult courts—about five times as many as more populous California. Florida’s adult prosecutions of juveniles were concentrated in the counties that include Miami, St. Petersburg, Palm Beach, Orlando and Pensacola.
California prosecuted 742 juveniles as adults in 2008, a number that dipped a little the next year before jumping to 976 last year. Hispanics made up a majority of those juveniles in each of those three years, reaching a peak of 59 percent in 2009. African-Americans hovered just under 30 percent—a level out of line with the state’s 13 percent Black population. About 38 percent of state residents are Hispanic.
In Arizona, Hispanics have been tried as adults at about the same rates as in California—between 57 percent and 59 percent between 2008 and 2010. Blacks have been overrepresented too, at between 12 percent and 18 percent.
The state is 30 percent Hispanic and four percent Black. Most adult prosecutions occurred in Maricopa County, where Phoenix, the state’s largest city, is located.
Hispanic juveniles were treated as adults in disparate numbers in Oregon, where they made up 30 percent of the 2008 total of 391 juveniles in adults courts. The state is 12 percent Hispanic.
In Missouri, 64 percent of juveniles statewide prosecuted as adults in 2009 were African American, nearly double the 2001 level of 36 percent. Black youth make up 15 percent of the state’s population between 10 and 17 that falls under the jurisdiction of juvenile courts. St. Louis and surrounding St. Louis County prosecuted as adults 70 percent of Black juveniles treated that way statewide.
The disparity was even greater for Black teen offenders in Tennessee: they made up 77 percent of children prosecuted as adults in 2008, and 67 percent the next year. There were about a total of 400 adult prosecutions in both years, and they were concentrated in the county that includes Memphis. Tennessee is 17 percent Black.
The Tennessee figures and one other statistic in the report suggest racial disparities are likely to be the greatest in the South, where states with the highest percentages of Black residents are located. The report says the bulk of all juveniles incarcerated in state prisons are doing their adult time in the South.
In Montana, the limited data published indicates that adult prosecution of Native American juveniles has been an issue. The statistics for Ohio that the Justice Department cites could not be found online.
To provide a fuller picture, the Justice Department recently commissioned a national survey to create the first national database of how juveniles are treated in adult courts. The survey will examine a sample of felony and misdemeanor cases against juveniles—and will include the demographics of those offenders.
Kenneth J. Cooper, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, is a freelancer based in Boston. He also edits the Trotter Review at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. •