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    Can I be tried in adult court?

    Date: 09.10.07 | by Judge Tom.

     Regardless of your age, if the crime is serious, the prosecutor may file charges against you in adult court or ask the juvenile court to transfer you to adult court. All states have a procedure that allows juveniles to be tried as adults. Some states have adopted an automatic transfer rule, which means you go directly to adult court for certain crimes. 

     Drastic changes in the juvenile justice system have occurred in the past few years. Due to an epidemic of juvenile crime, a get tough attitude has swept the United States. Most states have changed their laws to put more teenagers in the adult system. The philosophy of treatment and rehabilitation is giving way to longer sentences and fewer services for certain minors.

    Photo by David Goehring

    Sixteen-year-old Morris Kent* was on probation when he was charged with rape and robbery. He confessed to the charges and was transferred to adult court. No investigation was done before the transfer, and the court didn′t state the reasons for sending Morris to the adult system.

    He was found guilty and sentenced to thirty to ninety years in prison. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the transfer, stating that Morris, although a juvenile,was entitled to full due process—which meant a hearing, investigation, and a written statement of the court′s decision and reasons.

    Since Morris′s case, any juvenile charged with a crime, with a possibility of transfer to adult court, is entitled to full due process. A lawyer is appointed to represent you. It′s the prosecutor′s job to present evidence to the court regarding the seriousness of the charge and why you should be tried as an adult rather than a juvenile. Your lawyer will argue in favor of you staying in the juvenile system for treatment and rehabilitation.

    The court must determine not only what′s best for you but also how to protect the community from you until rehabilitation occurs. Community safety is a priority. Some of the factors the court considers include your age and level of maturity, the time remaining to work with you in the juvenile system, the seriousness of the crime, your criminal history, family support, and whether services have been offered to you in the past.


    Photo by Publik15 (Flickr)

    If you′re not transferred to adult court, your case will proceed as a juvenile court matter, where jurisdiction ends at age eighteen or twenty-one. If you′re transferred to adult court, you′ll be afforded all the rights of an adult criminal defendant. 

    This also means that the penalties usually reserved for adults now apply to you—including a number of years in prison, and in some cases, a life sentence with or without the possibility of parole. In January, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that “There is no right under the federal Constitution to be conditionally released before the expiration of a valid sentence, and the states are under no duty to offer parole to their prisoners.”  (Swarthout v. Cooke, Supreme Court Jan. 24, 2011).

    Update:  In a report** published in March, 2011, fewer teenagers are being sent to adult court on criminal charges. Due to a five-year trend in changing laws that send teens to adult court, budget deficits and deaths of incarcerated teens, states are keeping more juveniles out of the adult system. Statistics show that about 250,000 youths younger than 18 are prosecuted in adult court annually, while 3,000 were held in adult prisons in 2009.*** Studies have shown that youth sent to adult prison are more likely to commit future crimes and end up back in prison than youth sent to juvenile lockups. Keeping teens in juvenile custody gives them an opportunity for schooling, counseling and other programs that reduce the recidivism rate.
    The author of the report, Neelum Arya stated that “Incarcerating youth in adult prison is the most expensive option that consistently produces the worst results.” Juvenile facilities must offer schooling, counseling and other programs that adult prisons don’t.

    More information about Morris Kent is available at “Teens Take It To Court [Young People Who Challenged the Law and Changed Your Life]” by Free Spirit Publishing (2006).

    *Kent v. United States, 383 U.S. 541 (1966).

    **Campaign for Youth Justice (Washington, D.C.)

    ***Federal Bureau of Justice Statistics

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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    3 Comments subscribe to these comments.

    • cindy kreider
      Sun, 11 Jan 2009 at 10:24

      y son is being tried as an adult and i was wondering what my rights were as far as being involved. am i also to recieve any papers pertaining to his case. is it the atty’s right not to make sure i get the docs or does he have to give them to me.

      Judge Tom’s response:
      This is a good question that many parents ask when their kids are in court and have their own lawyer. You must first understand that your son’s attorney represents him only. The attorney has no obligation to you. Also the local rules of court apply as well as your state’s laws about juvenile proceedings. As the parent you have the right to attend all hearings but not necessarily participate. Try to obtain information about the case and the various stages of prosecution from his lawyer or the prosecutor’s office. You might also try the victim’s assistance office if there is one in your area. There may also be a probation officer already assigned to the case and that person may be able to keep you current on the proceedings.

    • Shantel Nobles
      Mon, 28 Sep 2009 at 07:30

      I read in the newspaper about 3 men being charged with capital murder for robbery, rape, etc. One of the 3 men is a juvenile. Since he is not considered an adult can he be tried in Texas as an adult since it was a serious crime leading to the death of one of the victims.
      Judge Tom’s response:
      Whether a minor is tried as an adult depends entirely on the laws of the state where the offense occurred. So, Texas law and the court will decide if the teen involved in this incident will be prosecuted as a juvenile or an adult.

    • John
      Thu, 28 Apr 2011 at 02:57

      If a juvenile commits a crime and that crime is not discovered until the juvenile is and adult where are they tried?
      (I am curious because of the Martha Moxley murder and the argument that it should have been tried in the juvenile system.)
      Dear John: Every state has its own laws regarding the charging of juveniles in the juvenile justice system as opposed to the adult criminal system. Generally, once a minor turns 18, he or she is an adult and the juvenile court loses jurisdiction. This may be different in the state you’re concerned with, so you need to Google the name of the state and “juvenile court jurisdiction.” For certain offenses (violent crimes, for example) juveniles may be automatically placed in adult court for the offense. Good luck.
      (This is information only – not legal advice).

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