Trying Kids as Adults: The Phenomenon of Transfer in the 1990's

Carla Barrett, CUNY - Graduate Center

Arguably the most major change in the last decade in mechanisms for dealing with youth crime has been the significant and rapid increase in trying youth as adults. Between 1990 and 1996 alone, 40 states implemented new laws to govern such transfer provisions - in all cases making it easier to transfer more and younger youth to criminal court jurisdiction. Too often subsumed under general theories of larger social trends toward punitive punishment practices in the last two-three decades, the transfer phenomenon is worthy of its own in-depth analysis. This paper examines a number of relevant factors, and the interplay among them, including the contradictions and ambiguities that have been part and parcel of the juvenile justice system, the moral panic over "youth violence" in the late 80's/early 90's, the inability of the public, media, and political leaders to understand the distinction between "juvenile crime" and "youth violence," as well as the role that trying youth as adults plays in the larger complex of increasingly punitive punishment that characterize the US at the end of the 20th century. By examining the convergence of all these factors we can begin to understand why the sweeping changes in transfer provisions occurred when they did, their impact upon the guiding theories and functionality of a transformed juvenile justice system, and the impact upon the many "adult kids" the system has created.

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Updated 05/20/2006