Report: Does Transferring Kids to Adult Court Deter Future Offenses?

Tuesday, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released “Transfer of Juveniles to Adult Court: Effects of a Broad Policy in One Court,” a new bulletin culling data from the Pathways to Desistance Study.

The longitudinal report examined outcomes for juveniles transferred to adult courts in Maricopa County, Ariz., with the authors concluding that 77 percent of young people that returned to their community after being sent to adult facilities reengaged in at least some level of “antisocial activity,” with approximately two-thirds eventually arrested or placed in an “institutional setting.”

“Adolescents in the adult system may be at risk for disruptions in their personal development, identity formation, relationships, learning, growth in skills and competencies and positive movement into adult status,” the report’s authors wrote.

Researchers said transferring young people to adult courts might have a “differential” effect, with some juveniles becoming likelier to offend again, depending on the young person’s presenting offense and previous offense history. Researchers state that adolescent offenders transferred to adult courts, without any prior petitions, were much likelier to be re-arrested than young people that remained in the juvenile justice system.

“Most of the youth in the study who were sent to adult facilities returned to the community within a few years, varying widely in their levels of adjustment,” the report says. “Youth were more likely to successfully adjust when they were not influenced by antisocial peers.”

Additionally, researchers say that adolescents are also at an elevated risk of being physically or sexually attacked while housed at adult facilities. Despite representing a meager proportion of total inmates in the nation’s adult prison system, analysts estimate that 21 percent of all victims of substantiated incidents of inmate-on-inmate sexual violence in 2005 were under the age of 18.

While transferring juveniles with serious violent offenses to adult courts “seemed to have its intended effect,” the report noted that adult court transfers had a detrimental effect regarding juveniles with serious property offenses.

“These analyses provide clear evidence that certain case characteristics, most notably type of offense and prior history, are differentially related to outcomes among transferred adolescents,” the researchers concluded.

Photo from the OJJDP's “Transfer of Juveniles to Adult Court: Effects of a Broad Policy in One Court.”

Serious Juvenile Offenders: Do Mental Health Problems Elevate Risk?

The general adolescent population is estimated to have a rate of 9 percent to 21 percent in occurrence of diagnosable psychiatric disorders. In comparison, researchers have established that the juvenile offender population has a disproportionately high rate of mental health problems, with estimates suggesting it is as high as 50 percent to 70 percent. Additionally, a majority of the diagnosable youth in the juvenile system have a co-occurring substance-use disorder.

Many initiatives dealing with mental health problems in juvenile offenders have treated them as a criminogenic risk factor; positing that, if these problems are addressed, youth’s risk for repeat offenses will decrease and their involvement in pro-social activity will increase. It is important that mental health problems be addressed for these youth,  but we require a better understanding of the role mental health problems play for offending to better inform program development.

Demonstrations that youth with mental health problems have an increased risk for criminal involvement proves an association, but not a definite cause or explanation about the means by which mental disorders elevate criminal risk. It is possible that there is a deeper root cause in the relationship between the two and that having a better understanding of this association can help determine the most effective treatment options.

There is not much data regarding whether and/or how mental health problems relate to continued offending or adjustment problems in adolescent offenders. The purpose of this study is to investigate the relationship among certain mental health problems (affective, anxiety, ADHD and substance use disorders), criminogenic risk, and outcomes (such as re-arrest) in a sample of serious adolescent offenders.

This investigation used data from a longitudinal study of serious adolescent offenders (The Pathways to Desistance Study). The sample of serious adolescent offenders included 949 individuals (84 percent male; 78 percent minority) with a mean age of 16. Some 57.7 percent of the sample met the criteria for at least one of the assessed MPHs. The study investigated three questions:

  1. What is the association of mental health problems with three distinct outcomes (re-arrest, self-reported antisocial activity, and gainful activity)?
  2. Does having a mental health problem contribute any unique explanatory power regarding these outcomes over and above the criminogenic risk markers?
  3. Do mental health problems moderate the relationship between risk markers and outcomes?

Data for the study are primarily youth self-report over a seven-year period with parent collaterals reporting on ADHD and official records as the source for re-arrest information.

Some important findings emerged from these analyses (presented in detail in Schubert, Mulvey & Glasheen, 2011).

    • If you look just at the relationship between mental health problems and outcomes, without considering criminogenic risk factors at all, having a mental health problem other than a substance use disorder (affective, ADHD or anxiety disorder) was not significantly associated with any of the three outcomes. The adolescents with mental health problems (excluding substance use) had the same type of outcomes as the adolescent offenders without these disorders.


    • The presence of a substance use disorder, however, does matter. Adolescents with substance use disorders had higher rates of rearrest, more self-reported antisocial activity and less time spent in gainful activity than the adolescent offenders without substance use disorders.


    • Criminogenic risk was related to certain disorders. In other words, adolescent offenders with certain disorders also had markedly higher levels of other risk factors related to future offending. Adolescents with ADHD had the lowest levels of risk factors related to future offending; adolescents with affective disorders, substance use disorders and anxiety disorders had high levels of risk factors for reoffending.


    • After controlling for demographic variables and risk factors, having an indicator of a mental health problem was not associated with the negative outcomes (rate of re-arrest and self-reported antisocial activity). With the background variables and the risk factors taken into account, the adolescent offenders with mental health problems were at no increased risk of re-arrest or engaging in antisocial activities than the adolescent offenders without these problems.


  • Substance use showed a different pattern. When substance use disorders were part of the clinical picture, there were significant relations with some outcomes. Substance use disorders, distinct from other mental health problems, contributed to poorer outcomes and they also magnified the effect of certain risk markers (e.g., antisocial history of the adolescent).

The overall message here is that criminogenic risk factors are appreciably higher in groups of adolescent offenders with certain mental health problems (affective disorders, substance use disorders, and anxiety problems), but the presence of these mental health problems is not highly related to positive or negative outcomes. The only clear exception to this latter observation is substance use problems. The presence of substance use problems is associated with poorer outcomes.

In conclusion, the heart of this issue seems to be the future challenge that lies in disentangling the relationship of mental health problems and the increased risk of involvement in criminal activity. For this reason, current juvenile justice policies that focus treatment efforts on both criminogenic and mental health factors (with particular emphasis on treating substance use disorders) appear well founded. It is unlikely that focusing solely on treating mental health problems in serious offenders will have a distinct impact on later outcomes.


The above story is reprinted with permission from Reclaiming Futures, a national initiative working to improve alcohol and drug treatment outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.

This post was adapted from the following research article: Schubert, CA, Mulvey, EP, Glasheen, C. (2011). The influence of mental health and substance use problems and criminogenic risk on outcomes in serious juvenile offenders. The Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 50(9), 925-937.


Kids Who Abuse Drugs Are More Likely to Commit Serious Crimes

Most young people who land in juvenile court have been using drugs, which may shed light on why some kids commit moreserious crimes and continue getting into trouble.

Kids involved in criminal activity are much more likely than other juvenile offenders to abuse drugs and alcohol, according to a study commissioned by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

The Pathways to Desistance study, called Substance Use and Delinquent Behavior Among Serious Adolescent Offenders, looked at more than 1,300 young offenders over 7 years.

The study shows kids involved with drugs need income and they have trouble coping and making decisions. They get into trouble and fail to take responsibility for their actions.

Here are some other links between drug abuse and teen offenders:

  • Kids who abuse drugs when they’re young are morel likely to get in trouble when they’re older.
  • Kids with diagnosable problems are more likely to get treatment in jail for drug and alcohol abuse than those who are not diagnosed.

Researchers recommend that justice system put more effort into finding, diagnosing and treating kids because they will be less likely to get into trouble as they get older.