States vary in how each sets the basic playing field for juvenile justice with lower and upper age boundaries. State legislatures further create a range of complex exceptions for transfer to criminal court based on case-by-case, age and offense specifics.
State juvenile justice profiles highlight the topical content of the JJGPS across its six main menu content areas and dozens of underlying juvenile justice reform topics. Each profile begins with the most recent state trend data on juvenile arrests and custody issues from national data collections followed by a checklist of highlights for comparing and contrasting juvenile justice policy.
How have the boundaries of juvenile justice changed? States must address the age boundaries of childhood and adulthood when defining criminal behavior. These boundaries change as public opinion about youth crime shifts. In the 1990s juvenile violence increased to historic levels. The rise in violence by juveniles changed public opinion and led to changes in state laws to make it easier for more juveniles to be prosecuted as adults. Fast-forward 20 years and juvenile crime is at an historical low and some states have changed laws in the other direction. The pace of change to restore the boundaries of juvenile justice is much slower. Details »
Delinquency age boundaries
All states set age boundaries for when law-violating conduct is considered "delinquent" for a child, but would be labeled a "crime" if committed by an adult.
The upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction over an offense committed by a minor has traditionally been through age 17 (up to age 18) in most states. A few states with upper ages below 17 recently amended statutes to conform with the national majority. Louisiana raises the age to 17 for some youth on 7/1/18, and others on 7/1/20. South Carolina's upper age changes to 17 on 7/1/19. When these changes are implemented only seven states will set the age below 18.
Common law can set the lower age at seven years old, but many states specify the lower age of delinquency in statute. The extended age of delinquency in most states is up through age 20 so the juvenile court judge can continue its standard jurisdiction or extend sanctions and services.
The highest age a minor's conduct can be labeled delinquent. Details »
The lowest age a minor's conduct can be labeled delinquent. Details »
The highest age delinquent youth can remain under juvenile court jurisdiction for disposition and provision of services. Details »
All states have statutes that make exceptions to the age boundaries of delinquency by specifying when the offense of a juvenile may or must be considered the crime of an adult. A century ago, the decision to send a minor to (adult) criminal court was more of an anticipated sentence decision left up to the juvenile court judge. Over time, informal agreements among prosecutors, criminal court, and juvenile court judges led to local practices that varied widely.
Supreme Court cases in the late 1960’s and 1970’s that required procedural safeguards for juveniles similar to those for adults in criminal court (Kent, Gault, Breed, McKeiver), along with youth violent crime rate spikes during the 1980’s and 1990’s led to a rash of amendments as transfer statutes were scrutinized and dramatically changed. State legislatures passed laws to standardize and reallocate formal transfer discretion away from the juvenile court judge.
Transfer provisions are exceptions to age boundaries that permit or require jurisdiction of the (adult) criminal court, depending on the minor's age, history, or circumstances of the offense. Statutes explain when juvenile or criminal court may be selected as the initial venue to adjudicate or convict youth accused of qualifying offenses and when the initial decision can be changed. Other sections provide for when a juvenile disposition (sanction) or adult sentence may or must be ordered.
Child-only status offenses (like truancy or running away) not labeled delinquent and categories of offenses assigned to municipal courts regardless of age (such as hunting license or motor vehicle violations,) are not encompassed within transfer provisions. Sections applicable only to minors who are Native American Indians or US territory residents and sections related to interstate compacts, federal jurisdiction, or international law are not described. Other procedural details can be found in state and local court rules, regulations, and other agency guidance documents.
Criminal court can impose juvenile dispositions and/or adult criminal sanctions while retaining jurisdiction. Details »
Compare transfer provisions
States typically respond to changes in the policy environment and perceptions of serious and violent youth crime by adjusting the offense and age criteria of their transfer laws. State comparison views and drop-down filters are useful tools for scanning how transfer provisions have changed over time and what pathways are the most common. Query examples »
There are several ways for a youth's case to be transferred to adult court. Nationally, only transfers to adult court by judicial waiver in a juvenile court are known. The National Juvenile Court Data Archive—maintained by the National Center for Juvenile Justice—standardizes data provided by the states into a consistent format and generates national estimates of fundamental delinquency court processing events, including referrals judicially waived to criminal court.
Some states report statistics for other methods of transfer and this detail is displayed where it is available. These data should be used with caution as they represent different data sources and units of count. Additionally, some present greater detail and address more current time periods than others. Notes are included for examples that have known accuracy issues or are dated, but nonetheless provide a starting point for discussing a particular state’s ability to report transfer data. Users are encouraged to access the original data sources via the links provided for a full understanding of the state transfer data.
Juvenile Justice GPS (Geography, Policy, Practice, Statistics) is a project to develop a repository providing state policy makers and system stakeholders with a clear understanding of the juvenile justice landscape in the states.