Separate Housing for Adult Court Youth an Unfounded Concern

Separate Housing for Adult Court Youth an Unfounded Concern

lhbThe concern regarding separate housing for adult court and juvenile court youth appears unfounded; no differences were found between the two groups in terms of victimization or offending. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Law and Human Behavior. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.

Featured Article | Law and Human Behavior | 2014, Vol. 38, No. 2, 126-138

Tried as an Adult, Housed as a Juvenile: A Tale of Youth From Two Courts Incarcerated Together


Jordan Bechtold University of California, Irvine
Elizabeth Cauffman University of California, Irvine


Research has questioned the wisdom of housing juveniles who are convicted in criminal court in facilities with adult offenders. It is argued that minors transferred to criminal court should not be incarcerated with adults, due to a greater likelihood of developing criminal skills, being victimized, and attempting suicide. Alternatively, it has been suggested that the other option, housing these youth with minors who have committed less serious crimes and who are therefore adjudicated in juvenile courts, might have unintended consequences for juvenile court youth. The present study utilizes a sample of youth incarcerated in one secure juvenile facility, with some offenders processed in juvenile court (n = 261) and others processed in adult court (n = 103). We investigate whether youth transferred to adult court engage in more institutional offending (in particular, violence) and experience less victimization than their juvenile court counterparts. Results indicate that although adult court youth had a greater likelihood of being convicted of violent commitment offenses than juvenile court youth, the former engaged in less offending during incarceration than the latter. In addition, no significant differences in victimization were observed. These findings suggest that the concern about the need for separate housing for adult court youth is unfounded; when incarcerated together, those tried in adult court do not engage in more institutional violence than juvenile court youth.


transfer to adult court, institutional behavior, juvenile court, juvenile offenders

Summary of the Research

Much debate in juvenile justice centers around whether it is most appropriate to house criminal court juvenile offenders with adult offenders or with juvenile offenders. Criminal court (adult court) juvenile offenders are tried as adults because of the seriousness of their crime, not the age at which they committed the crime. On one hand, housing criminal court youth offenders with adult offenders raises safety concerns should these youth experience greater rates of victimization or become more likely to commit suicide. Another concern raised is the influence of other adult offenders in turning youth offenders into mature, sophisticated criminals. On the other hand, housing these individuals with juvenile court youth might increase institutional violence in these juvenile facilities, although there is little empirical evidence that housing adult court and juvenile court offenders together increases violence in juvenile facilities.

The goal of this study was to provide empirical data regarding this concern to assist in determining where adult court youth should serve their time. Violent and nonviolent institutional behavior and victimization experiences in a juvenile facility were examined and compared for juvenile offenders processed in criminal court and those processed in the juvenile court system. Participants were 364 male juvenile offenders between the ages of 14 and 17 years who had committed a crime against another person (e.g., robbery, aggravated assault, attempted murder, sexual assault, and murder). The sample was divided into 261 juvenile court youth and 103 adult court youth and was ethnically diverse and representative of youth incarcerated in Southern California. Each participant completed six interviews over the course of their first two months of incarceration and data were collected regarding prior and institutional offending. In addition, frequency of experienced victimization was assessed with The Exposure to Violence Inventory. Institutional reports of victimization were not obtained, one of the study’s limitations.

Background Variables

No differences were found with respect to age, ethnicity, or proportion of time in the facility. Black youth had a higher chance of being transferred to adult court than White youth; however, when total prior arrests and violent offending were considered, these differences became non-significant… “In fact, White youth had more prior arrests than Black youth”(pp. 131-132).

Commitment offense

“Adult court minors were more likely to have a violent commitment offense than juvenile court youth and more likely to be a first time offender. 96.1% of adult court youth were convicted of a violent offense as their commitment offense compared with only 59.4% of juvenile court youth. The odds of being convicted of a violent offense were 16.9 times higher for adult court youth than juvenile court offenders.” (pp. 132)

Prior offending

According to official records, “youth tried in adult court were more likely to be first time offenders than juvenile court youth.” Self-reports of lifetime violent offending did not reveal any differences between adult court and juvenile court youth.

Do Adult Court Youth Engage in More Institutional Offending Than Youth From Juvenile Court?

“No analysis (nonviolent or violent; facility-report or self-report) indicated that adult court youth exhibit more offending than juvenile court youth. In fact, according to facility reports, juvenile court youth commit more violent and nonviolent offenses than do adult court youth.” (pp. 132)

Do Juvenile Court and Adult Court Youth Experience Similar Amounts of Victimization While Incarcerated Together?

“Results indicated no differences in victimization between juvenile court and adult court youth. Although a few youth were victimized as many as 13 times, on average, youth in the facility reported being victimized about one time (M = 0.63, SD = 1.53) during the first 2 months of incarceration ” (p. 132). There were no differences between juvenile court and adult court youth in victimization experiences during the study period.

Translating Research into Practice

This study found that even though adult court youth offenders were more likely to commit serious offenses, there was “no evidence that these youth engage in more violent or nonviolent institutional offending than youth processed in juvenile court”. It was actually juvenile court youth who “not only engaged in more institutional offending but also had more prior arrests and self-reported a more extensive history of offending than the adult court youth.” The strength of these findings is that they were consistent “across multiple data sources (facility-report and self-report; violent and nonviolent offenses” (pp. 133-135).

The study also found that there was a low likelihood for adult court youth to reoffend. Surprisingly, it was adult court youth who were more likely to be first time offenders than juvenile court offenders. This is in line with previous research indicating first time offenders are less likely to reoffend when compared to chronic offenders.

The study authors found it “especially encouraging” that the data indicate that adult court youth “do not engage in particularly high levels of offending when confined with other juvenile offenders” (pp. 134).

Taken together, the results of this study suggest that the hypothesized negative outcomes of housing adult court youth in a facility with juvenile court youth may warrant reconsideration. Adult court youth did not engage in more violent or nonviolent offending than juvenile court youth and there were no differences between the two groups in terms of victimization experiences. The study authors contrast their results with those from research regarding housing adult court juvenile offenders with other adults in which poorer outcomes (e.g., higher rates of recidivism) are found for juvenile offenders juveniles housed with adult offenders. In addition, juvenile facilities offer developmentally appropriate settings that promote educational objectives.

“Maintaining and encouraging academic goals—especially while incarcerated—is developmentally critical, as research indicates that education is a strong predictor of abstaining and desisting from delinquency and antisocial behavior. Juvenile facilities are, by design, more prepared to handle the educational needs of young offenders than adult facilities.” (pp. 135)

In addition, “Researchers found that when adolescents perceived a high degree of community reentry planning and/or services (e.g., mental health) during secure placement, the adolescent was less likely to recidivate over the subsequent year after release” (p. 135)

In summary, the researchers of the present study suggest that, “decision makers may want to consider the possibility of housing adult court youth in juvenile facilities (ideally on a case-by-case basis)” (p. 135).

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

Future research could focus on comparing adult court youth housed in adult facilities to adult court youth housed in juvenile facilities. The present study only focused on the latter. Analyzing who is victimizing whom could also give researchers a better idea of the conditions in youth facilities.

Join the Discussion

As always, please join the discussion below if you have thoughts or comments to add!

Special Contributor

GaliciaBetsy-pictureContributions to this post were made by Betsy Galicia.

Betsy E. Galicia is a graduate student born and raised in Houston, Texas pursuing her MA in Forensic Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She is interested in cultural differences in forensic assessments and cultural competency. She plans to write a thesis on these topics and go on to earn a doctoral degree. Other interests include traveling and exploring the world, going to parks, riding her bike, and re-reading The Giver by Lois Lowry.

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