In some situations, a juvenile court judge may determine that a juvenile has waived the protections of being tried in juvenile court. As a result, the judge may transfer their case to adult court. This also may happen when a juvenile is a repeat offender, since the penalties imposed in the juvenile justice system may be considered insufficient to correct their conduct. Most juveniles prefer to avoid having their case tried in adult court. A conviction in adult court can result in harsher penalties, sometimes involving mandatory minimum sentences. The juvenile may be sentenced to prison time, and a judge does not have as much flexibility in crafting a sentence as a judge in juvenile court. A conviction in adult court also carries a more significant impact for a juvenile’s social and professional prospects. These convictions are less often sealed and will be taken more seriously by others who interact with the juvenile.
However, there are certain advantages to being tried in adult court rather than juvenile court. A juvenile can assert the right to a jury trial, which is usually not available in juvenile court. This may mean that the juvenile will receive a lighter sentence, since juries tend to be more sympathetic to an underage defendant than a judge would be. Many judges and prosecutors in adult court will try to resolve a case involving an underage defendant efficiently so that they can focus on cases involving adult defendants. This may result in a generous plea bargain.
Requirements for Transfer to Adult Court
There is usually a minimum age at which a juvenile can be tried in adult court. This is generally 16, although it can be 13 or another age. Some states provide that a juvenile of any age can be tried in adult court if they are charged with homicide or other very serious crimes. Increasing concern over juvenile crime has led to movements in many states to reduce the minimum age at which juveniles can be tried in adult court and expand the types of crimes that may result in a transfer.
Some of the common situations in which a judge may order a transfer include when the case involves a serious crime or a juvenile who has committed many previous offenses. They also may be more inclined to transfer a case when a juvenile defendant has nearly reached the age of majority. The judge may consider the effectiveness of previous efforts to rehabilitate the juvenile in determining whether the juvenile justice system can effectively correct their behavior. If they have exhausted their options within the system, a judge may conclude that pursuing these options again would not be worthwhile.
Waiver Petitions and Automatic Transfers
Sometimes a prosecutor will seek a waiver and transfer to adult court, but the judge also can initiate the process. Regardless of who starts it, the juvenile can challenge the transfer at a hearing. They have a right to an attorney at the hearing, which may be known as a waiver hearing or a fitness hearing. The prosecutor first must show that there is probable cause to believe that the juvenile committed the crime. (Read more here about probable cause, which does not mean a level of proof that most people would consider “probable.”) If the prosecutor meets their burden, the judge will evaluate whether the juvenile can be rehabilitated within the juvenile justice system. This may involve considering their criminal record (if any), family background, and responsiveness to previous intervention by law enforcement.
Automatic transfer laws apply in some states. These provide for an automatic transfer to adult court if a juvenile who is at least a certain age has committed a certain serious offense. For example, a state might require that someone who is at least 16 must be transferred to adult court for a case based on homicide or a sex offense. The juvenile still can challenge an automatic transfer in a reverse waiver hearing. They would have the burden of proof in this proceeding, rather than the prosecutor.
If a case is transferred from juvenile court to adult court, it will start over in that system with the arraignment, at which the juvenile will be formally charged. After that stage, the case would proceed just as it would for an adult defendant.