The prospect of possible adult sanctions for a juvenile offender raises serious questions. Some jurisdictions refer to this procedure as “transfer to adult court.” The statute in New Mexico refers to “disposition of a youthful offender,” but the underlying considerations are essentially consistent with one another. The statute in New Mexico (32A-2-20) specifies the issue being whether or not the child is amenable to treatment or rehabilitation as a child in available facilities; or whether or not the child is eligible for commitment to an institution for children with developmental disabilities or mental disorders. The statute details elements to take into consideration. The burden is on the court to find that the child is not amenable or is not eligible as defined above in order to invoke an adult sentence.

The possible consequences of transfer for the juvenile can be dire, and some states allow for capital punishment in certain cases. Consequently, such transfers should be, and are, rare events. Fewer than two percent of juvenile cases result in transfer to adult court. One presumed intention of transfer of juveniles is to prevent the offender from continuing to an adult life of crime. Surprisingly, of those transferred only a minority involved violent crimes against persons. The reason for this is not clear, but it would seem that many transfers are for reasons other than protecting the public from violent crime.

Studies have found that transfer laws have “little or no deterrent effect in preventing serious juvenile crime.”  Juveniles sentenced as adults did not have lower rates of recidivism; instead, they had higher recidivism rates when compared to similar offenders whose cases were handled in juvenile court.

It is clear that conventional wisdom held by many people about serious youthful offenders is not borne out by current research and practice. While some such youth are highly dangerous and resistant to rehabilitation, that is not the norm and it definitely is not true for many juveniles. It therefore is imperative that each juvenile who comes before the court is examined on an individual basis to determine if he or she is amenable to rehabilitation as a juvenile.

Prosecution of youthful offenders