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Violence Prevention: Policies Facilitating the Transfer of Juveniles to Adult Justice Systems


What the CPSTF Found

About The Systematic Review

The CPSTF finding is based on evidence from a systematic review of 9 studies (search period through February 2003). The review was conducted on behalf of the CPST by a team of specialists in systematic review methods, and in research, practice, and policy related to violence prevention.

Summary of Results

Specific Deterrence Effects

Specific deterrence refers to the assumption that youth will refrain from committing additional crimes as a result of their own experience in the adult justice system. Six studies assessed specific deterrent effects of juvenile transfer policies.

  • Transferred youth were more likely to be re-arrested for a violent or other crime than youth retained in the juvenile justice system. Among studies reviewed, the median effect was an increase of 33.7% in violent rearrests for transferred juveniles, compared with retained juveniles.
  • Other violent outcomes that may result from the transfer of youth to the adult system include:
    • An increase in pretrial violence
    • Victimization of juveniles in adult facilities
    • Elevated suicide rates for juveniles incarcerated in adult facilities

General Deterrence Effects

General deterrence refers to the assumption that youth in the general population will refrain from committing crimes because of the perceived severity of the adult justice system.

  • Evidence on general deterrence was insufficient to determine the effectiveness of youth transfer policies for reducing violence among all youth because of a small number of studies and inconsistent findings.
  • However, following completion of the present review, an article was published on the general deterrent effects of strengthened transfer laws (Steiner et al. 2006). Although we do not formally include it in our review because it was outside of our publication date cutoffs, it is one of the stronger studies to date regarding the general deterrence effect of strengthened transfer. The study concluded that transfer laws do not promote the general deterrence of violent crime.

Summary of Economic Evidence

An economic review of this intervention was not conducted because CPSTF recommends against use of the intervention.


Applicability of this intervention across different settings and populations was not assessed because CPSTF recommends against use of the intervention.

Evidence Gaps

CPSTF identified several areas that have limited information. Additional research and evaluation could help answer the following questions and fill remaining gaps in the evidence base. (What are evidence gaps?)

We found insufficient evidence regarding general deterrence. Other than one study (Levitt 1998), which examined the associations of age of adult court jurisdiction and rates of arrest rather than the effects of transfer per se, the studies reviewed here assessed limited geographic areas and, in general, used simple methodologies. Data may be available to apply time series methods to a broader array of regions and to adjust for confounding variables with ecological designs.

It is not clear whether the effect of increased violence among juveniles who experience the adult versus the juvenile justice system is attributable to the overall judicial process, to the differences in sanctions experienced, or to some other component of the process. Among the studies reviewed, analyses by Fagan and Podkopacz indicate that the effects of transfer are not exclusively attributable to incarceration, but also involve the overall justice system which may result in acquittal or parole. This issue merits further exploration.

The effectiveness of transfer policies on violence across levels of severity (e.g., murder versus assault), should also be examined. While several studies reviewed indicate different effects for differing initial offenses, other studies do not stratify effects by initial offense.

Systematic comparison of state transfer laws should be undertaken to determine the extent to which the specific provisions of state laws included in the review are representative of all state transfer provisions. Differences in the application and enforcement of provisions should also be assessed.

Costs of transferring youth to the adult criminal system versus retaining them in the juvenile system have been little explored. In some sense, evaluating costs of interventions (e.g., transfer) that cause net harm seems unnecessary; because any spending on harmful interventions appears wasteful, the more spending, the more waste. On the other hand, however, documenting the variability and relative costs of the two judicial and correctional systems, the distribution of responsibility for these costs across different levels of government and society, and the net balance of program costs, the costs of subsequent crime, and the costs of opportunities lost to the juveniles themselves might allow a constructive economic discussion of the consequences of change.

Study Characteristics

  • Specific deterrence studies had follow-up times for evaluating risk for re-offending ranged from 18 months to 6 years.
  • General deterrence studies included study samples from Washington, Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana.