New Report Examines States’ Use of Criminal Sanctions of Young Offenders
By Meghan Fay, Assistant Editor

Youth violence is a concern of almost every parent in America. However, this concern for the country’s youth has been interpreted by legislatures as a need to get tough on crime, which is changing the face of the juvenile justice system. 

A growing number of states have changed their laws to make it easier to transfer juveniles to adult criminal court jurisdictions. A new report from the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) describes three states - Minnesota, New Mexico and Wisconsin - that have recently enhanced the use of adult criminal sanctions for juveniles. Juveniles Facing Criminal Sanctions: Three States That Changed the Rules provides case studies of each state’s approach to reform. It also discusses the impact of the reform on juvenile and criminal justice systems.

Despite the fact that juvenile violent crime has steadily declined in recent years, political rhetoric continues to call for tougher legislation targeting at violent teens. “Public policy hasn’t caught up with reality,” said Betty Chemers, Acting Deputy Administrator for Discretionary Programs for OJJDP. “I think that basically, policy makers feel that their constituents want them to be tough on crime,” however, Chemers believes that the measures have not been done in a rational manner, such as basing decisions on data.

Although many states have made reforms, which have had an effect on the juvenile justice system, Minnesota, New Mexico and Wisconsin were chosen in the study because their approaches were somewhat representative of the broader national trend. Wisconsin excluded 17 year-olds from the juvenile court jurisdiction entirely, and Minnesota and New Mexico expanded juvenile court judges’ sentencing authority. According to Chemers, the efforts made to identify the most violent juvenile offenders are actually catching other non-serious offenders and placing them in facilities. “We (OJJDP) just feel that juvenile courts were set up to deal with juveniles and juvenile court is the most appropriate place,” she said.

Wisconsin Defines Adulthood

By defining adulthood at age 17, Wisconsin shifted a large, diverse group of juveniles into the adult criminal justice system. The state’s goals for doing so were to: promote individual accountability for the more mature delinquent offenders, achieve age consistency with two neighboring states and focus juvenile justice resources on younger offenders. Wisconsin saw an immediate increase in the number of 17 year-olds admitted to jails and prisons after the first year. Between 1996 - 1997 jail admissions increased by more than 40 percent in this age group and prison admissions increased by 70 percent over a three-year period between 1995 - 1997.

According to the study many believe that reform simply widened the net for 17 year olds who commit less serious offenses to receive a criminal sanction. As a result, the juvenile system, which has different programmatic responsibilities to youthful offenders, began to tax the adult system, which struggled to meet juveniles’ special needs. By law, juveniles have to be sight and sound separated from adults, in addition to having access to special education and mental health programs. Except for the ability to accept criminal responsibility, youth who are 17 years old are considered minors under Wisconsin law. Mandatory education laws and laws requiring parental consent for medical treatment still apply.

The report acknowledges that two of the three goals have been met. Wisconsin holds 17 year-olds accountable in the adult criminal justice system in accordance with the age of adult criminal responsibility, just like its neighboring states: Illinois and Michigan. However, the shift of resources towards the younger offenders has had the unintended consequence of adding 10 and 11 year-olds to the workload. 

New Mexico Repeals Juvenile Waiver

To target serious juvenile offenders, New Mexico repealed its juvenile waiver law and replaced it with one that grants juvenile court judges more options to impose sanctions. According to the report, New Mexico is the only state to empower its juvenile court judges with a wide range of sanctions. In addition, 15 to 17 year olds charged with first-degree murder are excluded from the juvenile jurisdiction altogether.

Because the Department of Corrections expected only a small number of juveniles to be incarcerated with adults, it did not implement any new programming for juveniles. As a result no new funding was appropriated and no specific training was provided for staff working with juveniles in adult facilities. One of the main impacts noted by the report was the difference in practices in the rural and urban areas. The prosecutor in the rural district sought criminal sanctions for all juveniles who met the youthful offender criteria and the prosecutor in the urban area sought criminal sanctions against an estimated 70 to 80 cases per year and rejected the option in two to three times as many potential cases. Another impact was felt when prosecutors used the threat of a criminal sanction in negotiations to get pleas that favored the juvenile sanction. 

Minnesota Expands Options

Minnesota’s juvenile reforms created an expanded sentencing option. The option allows the juvenile court to impose an extended juvenile disposition and a stayed criminal sanction on a new legal category of juveniles called extended jurisdictions juveniles (EJJ). The intent was to give repeat serious juvenile offenders one last chance for success in the juvenile justice system. The reality was that the youth receiving EJJ designation included more serious first-time offenders than serious repeat offenders. The report also found that African Americans make up a disproportionate share of offenders receiving EJJ designation. “These new sentencing laws have a disproportionate effect on minorities,” said Chemers who sees this as a critical problem.

Common Bonds

The study identified several broad lessons that can be applied to future legislation regarding juveniles. They are:

  • A disconnect exists between the legislative intent and the actual implementation of new laws
  • Blended sentencing laws encourage plea bargaining.
  • Local applications of new sentencing laws varies widely.
  • New sentencing laws have a disproportionate impact on minorities.
  • Expanded sentencing laws require new resources/interventions.
  • Wholesale age expectations have unanticipated consequences.
  • The “in-between” status of juveniles creates problems for adult criminal corrections agencies.
  • More data collection and systematic follow-up are needed to judge the impact of reforms.
“The transfer of kids is very complex, but it’s a really critical policy issue right now,” said Chemers. “We (OJJDP) believe that there needs to be a system of graduated sanctions,” ranging from the least restrictive to the most severe. In an effort to identify the most violent offenders many other kids are getting caught.

To obtain a copy of this publication, contact OJJDP’s website at or OJJDP’s Juvenile Justice Clearinghouse, Box 6000, Rockville, MD 20857. The toll-free number is 800.638.8736.Screened Images Inc., Copyright 1999, 2000 all rights reserved
159 Burgin Parkway | Quincy, MA 02169
617-471-4445 | Fax 617-770-3339