Stop treating me like a child: Youths’ perceptions of just treatment in adult and juvenile courts

Although youth adjudicated in adult court felt more justly treated that youth adjudicated in juvenile court, the findings should be interpreted as supporting necessary procedural justice adjustments to the juvenile court settings, as transfers to adult court have been linked to worse outcomes. This is the bottom line of a recently published article in Psychology, Public Policy, and Law. Below is a summary of the research and findings as well as a translation of this research into practice.


Featured Article | Psychology, Public Policy, and Law | 2018, Vol. 24, No. 4, 418–429

The impact of waiver to adult court on youths’ perceptions of procedural justice


Suzanne O. Kaasa, Westat, Rockville, Maryland
Joseph R. Tatar II, Wisconsin Department of Corrections, Madison, Wisconsin
Amy Dezember, George Mason University
Elizabeth Cauffman, University of California–Irvine


The current study examined perceptions of fair treatment in a past court experience among a sample of incarcerated youth (n = 364). Perceptions were compared for youth whose cases were processed through juvenile (n = 261) versus adult court (n = 103) systems. In general, youth who were adjudicated in adult court felt more justly treated by legal authorities than youth adjudicated in juvenile court. Specifically, youth in adult court rated judges as only marginally more just than youth in juvenile court, but rated their defense attorney’s treatment as significantly more just. Youth rated the prosecutor’s treatment as relatively unjust regardless of where their case was handled. Differences in perceptions of procedural justice were also observed based on prior arrest history and race, with White youth and first-time offenders perceiving the process to be more just. Our findings should not be used as support for the increased transfer of youth into adult court, as other studies have demonstrated these youth tend to have worse outcomes. However, our findings do suggest that improvements should be made to increase elements of procedural justice in juvenile court settings.


procedural justice, waiver to adult court, juvenile court, juvenile justice, juvenile transfer

Summary of the Research

“Youth who commit serious offenses face two distinct paths in the justice system. Although the juvenile justice system handles the majority of cases involving minors, all states have enacted mechanisms for trying certain youth as adults in criminal court. […] Minors may be tried as adults in criminal court through four separate processes. In nearly all states, judges may authorize the transfer of cases that meet certain criteria from juvenile to criminal court, a decision referred to as judicial waivers. Some states allow prosecutorial waivers, where prosecutors may file charges against youth in criminal court without the need for judicial approval. A majority of states have also enacted statutory exclusion laws that mandate certain types of cases involving youth must be filed in criminal court. Finally, some states have set the age of criminal responsibility to less than 18 years, meaning individuals as young as 16 or 17 are excluded from the juvenile justice system simply because of their age. […] Statutory exclusion laws and juvenile justice systems that exclude youth 16 or 17 years old are designed to ensure uniform treatment of all youth who fit certain criteria, while judicial and prosecutorial waivers allow for individual circumstances to affect the transfer decision. In effect, both methods attempt to achieve fair treatment (among other goals) through opposite methods. The first method is meant to enhance fairness through standardization while the second is meant to enhance fairness by taking individual characteristics of the defendant and crime into account. However, it is unclear if the method of transfer impacts a juvenile’s perceptions of procedural justice, which in turn could potentially impact other outcomes.” (pp. 418–419)

“As a plethora of literature shows, perceptions of fair treatment are extremely important to the justice system. […] Research has demonstrated that individuals who believe they are unfairly treated by the justice system display worse outcomes than those who believe they were treated fairly, even when the individuals have similar negative distributive outcomes (e.g., were found guilty of a crime). Perceptions of unjust treatment increase feelings of anger, sadness, and depression, while perceptions of just treatment increase positive feelings such as happiness and satisfaction. Increased feelings of depression and anger because of perceived unjust treatment may exacerbate already high levels of internalizing and externalizing mental health disorders in justice-involved populations. Perceptions of procedural justice are also are linked with attitudes toward the legitimacy of authorities and rules. Finally, perceptions of injustice also influence behavior. Rule breaking and offending tend to be higher among individuals after a perceived unfair experience with the legal system.” (p. 419)

“Individuals perceive a process as fair if they: (a) are given a say or are actively involved, (b) are treated with respect, (c) feel the authority can be trusted to act in a fair and ethical manner, and (d) believe the authority is unbiased in his or her decision-making. […] Certain background characteristics of individuals are associated with higher perceptions of unjust treatment, including ethnicity or race and previous contact with the justice system. Whites have reported more positive perceptions of their personal treatment by legal authorities than Latino and Black youth. These perceptions are likely because of real disparities in treatment and outcomes with research indicating that minority offenders are more likely to be arrested, face greater odds of being charged and prosecuted, and are sentenced more harshly than their White counterparts. […] There is some evidence that individuals with more convictions perceive personal contacts as less just. […] Minorities and individuals with greater justice system experience view legal authorities as less just in their general dealings with the public and expect them to be less just during future personal contacts. There is even evidence that experiences in one legal context can impact perceptions in other situations.” (p. 419)

“Because of the serious negative implications that perceptions of unjust treatment have on individuals’ emotions, attitudes, and behaviors, it is crucial that different aspects of the justice system are evaluated based on their procedural justice. One unexplored area is the difference in perceptions of fair treatment that youth experience in juvenile versus adult criminal justice systems. This is an important topic for several reasons. First, because of the fact that youth are cognitively and psychosocially immature, early experiences with the justice system may substantially impact their future development. […] Second, while juvenile waivers have decreased since their peak in the mid-1990s, transfer laws and mechanisms have become more common and more far-reaching, allowing for offenders to bypass the juvenile court altogether. In recent years, the pendulum has swung back with some states amending their transfer laws to keep more youth within the juvenile court system. […] There is some support for the idea that the rehabilitative and less-adversarial nature of juvenile court would enhance youth’s perceptions of fair treatment, as compared with the adult criminal court. Youth in criminal court generally have worse outcomes than youth tried for similar offenses in the juvenile system. […] Research indicates that waivers stigmatize transferred youth by signaling increased culpability, dangerousness, and incorrigibility to adult court judges. […] Experiencing the juvenile penalty in adult criminal court may result in transferred youth having increased perceptions of unfair treatment. Finally, transfer may result in a harsher experience of incarceration when juveniles that have been waived to the adult system are housed in adult correctional facilities.” (p. 419–420)

“It is also likely that many features of juvenile court decrease perceptions of procedural justice. Because the juvenile court was originally based on the parens patriae ideal of the state acting in the best interests of youth, established procedural safeguards mandated for adult defendants were deemed unnecessary. In practice, this lack of safeguards led to serious instances of injustice and, over time, many procedural protections have been granted to youth in the juvenile system. […] Youth charged in the juvenile justice system enjoy some, but not all, of the procedural protections guaranteed in criminal court. Youth who are charged as adults, on the other hand, enjoy all of the same procedural protections as their older counterparts. Therefore, it is possible that these youth experience their treatment by the justice system as more fair than youth tried as juveniles.” (p. 420)

“In addition to procedural disparities, there have also been numerous studies examining the role of criminal justice actors in the juvenile justice system and the transfer process. Studies have shown that, in addition to legal factors, juvenile court judges take their own attitudes about the offender and their beliefs about transfer effectiveness into consideration when making waiver decisions. […] Further, studies looking at defense attorneys have indicated that juvenile courts often receive fewer resources than criminal courts, and are viewed as less desirable and prestigious work environments than criminal courts.” (p. 420)

“The current study examined perceptions of fair treatment in a past court experience among a sample of incarcerated youth. Perceptions were compared for youth whose cases were processed through the juvenile versus adult court systems. Individual differences in youth characteristics related to perceptions of procedural justice were also examined. Finally, the perceived fairness of specific aspects of court treatment were compared for youth in juvenile versus adult systems.” (p. 421)

“The sample was comprised of 364 adolescent male offenders between the ages of 14 and 17 (M = 16.42, SD = .80, Median = 17), incarcerated at a secure juvenile facility in southern California. Of these youth, 261 were processed through juvenile court and 103 were processed through adult court. The ethnic and racial representation of the sample was consistent with incarcerated youth in similar juvenile justice facilities in California at the time data was collected: 53.6% Latino, 29.1% Black, 6.0% White, and 11.3% of primarily biracial origin. Seventy percent of the sample was adjudicated on a violent committing offense, 12% with a property offense, 7% with a public order offense, 3.5% each with a weapon or drug charge, and 5% with an unclassified crime. At the time of the data collection period, California’s upper age of juvenile court jurisdiction was 17 years. […] Perceived fairness of a youth’s last court appearance was assessed using an expanded version of the Fairness Assessment in Response to Court Experiences scale (FAIRCE).” (pp. 421–422)

“Our findings provide insight into these three points. In general, youth who were adjudicated in adult court felt more justly treated by legal authorities than youth adjudicated in juvenile court, even controlling for race and prior arrest disparities among these two groups. Upon closer inspection, however, it is clear that these findings are driven by certain legal authorities rather than others. Youth in adult court rated judges as only marginally more just than youth in juvenile court, but rated their defense attorney’s treatment as significantly more just. Youth in both juvenile and adult courts rated the prosecutor’s treatment as relatively unjust compared with their ratings of the judge and defense attorney. This is not surprising given the prosecutor’s role and likely explains the lack of difference between these two groups for this particular legal authority. […] These findings have important implications for improving how the juvenile justice system functions. Over time, the juvenile justice system has incorporated many, but not all, of the procedural safeguards that are hallmarks of the adult criminal justice system.” (p. 424)

“Some research conducted on the behaviors and attitudes of these legal actors suggest that the less adversarial orientation of the juvenile justice system has produced a distinct legal culture from that of criminal court. These cultural influences have in some cases led to differences in role expectations between the two courts that may affect how youth perceive their treatment by legal authorities. […] A de-emphasis on the adversarial process may result in defense attorneys creating a less rigorous defense for youth, and the feeling among youth that their attorney is working for the court rather than working for them. This discouragement of the adversarial process appears to stem from the stated emphasis in juvenile court on dual goals of rehabilitation and punishment of juvenile offenders.” (p. 424)

“Although research is this area is lacking, some authors suggest that the greater emphasis on rehabilitation in juvenile court has led to role conflicts for legal actors. […] One survey of court workers (including judicial and nonjudicial staff) found that judges were expected to be neutral fact-finders during adjudication, but to switch orientations during detention and disposition stages and focus on the best interests of youth by matching their unique needs to available rehabilitative resources. In fact, over half of these workers declared that youth’s rehabilitation should be the judge’s top priority. […] Judicial role conflict may be apparent to youth in juvenile court when they observe judges departing from their objective fact-finder role; thus, leading to lower perceptions of fair treatment.” (p. 424)

“Role conflict has also been found with attorneys. […] Research suggests that the greatest differences in court roles are experienced by defense attorneys. Professional standards and ethical guidelines obligate defense attorneys to follow the stated preference of their clients and offer the most rigorous defense possible. However, the nonadversarial culture of juvenile courts and procedural differences that reflect a parens patriae orientation present a potential conflict of interest for defense attorneys when the youth they represent may benefit from rehabilitative services if adjudicated delinquent. […] Research suggests that youth in juvenile court were dissatisfied with their representation. Altogether, it is possible that differences in legal authorities’ experience, resources, and perceived roles could significantly lower levels of perceived just treatment by youth in juvenile court than those in criminal court.” (pp. 424–425)

“Results from the analyses indicated that youth who had been arrested before felt they had been treated more unfairly than those who had no previous arrest history by the judge and felt marginally more unfair treatment by the prosecutor, but not their defense attorney. […] our findings provide a more nuanced examination of this issue, and suggest that experience with the justice system affects perceptions of some court authorities more than others. One limitation of our findings is that we examine the association of prior arrests on perceptions of just treatment rather than prior adjudications. It is possible that many of the youth in our sample were diverted or did not have charges filed for prior arrests and, therefore, did not have much contact with a defense attorney.” (p. 425)

“Our findings also revealed differences in perceptions of just treatment by race; White youth felt more justly treated by the prosecutor and the defense attorney and marginally more justly treated by the judge than minority youth. This finding adds to a body of literature that shows minorities report perceptions of unjust treatment by a variety of different legal authorities at greater rates than Whites. […] These perceptions are likely because of real disparities in treatment and outcomes, with research indicating that minority offenders are more likely to be arrested, face greater odds of being charged and prosecuted, and are sentenced more harshly than their White counterparts.” (p. 425)

Translating Research into Practice

“Our findings should not be used as support for the increased transfer of youth into adult court, as other studies have demonstrated these youth tend to have worse outcomes. However, our findings do suggest that improvements should be made to increase elements of procedural justice within juvenile court settings.” (p. 426)

System processes and procedures: “The twin goals of juvenile court are to provide accountability for youth offenders while supporting rehabilitation. […] One element that appears to distinguish procedures in juvenile versus adult court is the de-emphasis on the adversarial process and more cooperative relationships between judges, prosecutors, and defense attorneys in the juvenile system. Juvenile courts may need to consider how these relationships are perceived by youth as they interact with these legal authorities separately and together in the courtroom setting. Appearance of collusion between one’s own defense attorney and the prosecutor may be especially harmful to perceptions of just treatment. Youth may benefit from more formalized separation between these legal authorities during the legal process. In addition, more formal procedural protections afforded in adult criminal courts such as the right to a jury trial could establish additional procedural protections. Members of the public who serve as jurors may be less likely to experience role conflict and, therefore, be more likely than judges to be objective fact-finders and follow the legally mandated “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof in juvenile courts. […] These system-level changes can be enacted in ways that preserve the juvenile court’s dual goals. Increased procedural protections would likely result in increased perceptions of just treatment, which in turn would likely increase youth receptiveness to rehabilitation.” (p. 426)

Racial and ethnic disparities: “Given the importance of neutral treatment to procedural justice, it is imperative that court systems actively promote equal treatment of youth regardless of background. As disparities can arise from unconscious behaviors and unintended consequences, they require conscious and sustained efforts to address. Courts should implement training on these issues for all legal authorities that interact with youth. In addition, courts should make a conscious effort to ensure that their hiring and promotion practices result in staff who reflect similar demographics as the communities they represent.” (p. 426)

Judges: “Increasing formal procedural protections for youth may help address the issue of judicial role conflict in juvenile justice systems. However, additional attention may need to be paid to how judges consider youth prior criminal history during the court process. […] Although prior criminal history may be an appropriate factor to inform justice decisions, judges should be careful to ensure they continue to treat all youth with the same respect, voice, neutrality, and fairness regardless of their background. It is especially important that judges retain their impartiality given the lack of jury trials in many jurisdictions. Courts may benefit from judicial training on how to incorporate prior history into decision making without reducing perceptions of procedural justice.” (p. 426)

Prosecutors: “Our findings showed that youth in both juvenile and adult criminal court rated prosecutor behavior as relatively unjust compared with judges and defense attorneys. […] However, prosecutors in juvenile court must also grapple with role conflict issues. Additional training on these issues may benefit prosecutors as well.” (p. 426)

Defense attorneys: “The main difference between perceptions of procedural justice among youth in juvenile versus adult criminal courts was treatment by their own defense attorneys. Juvenile defense counsel training should include guidance related to managing role conflict and methods for engaging youth more in the process so that they feel they have a meaningful voice in proceedings. […] Providing sufficient resources to support a rigorous defense and high-quality defense attorneys would also promote procedural justice by counteracting systemic barriers created by the perception that juvenile court is as a low-stakes training ground for attorneys.” (pp. 426–427)

Community-based services: “In addition to training, one crucial way to reduce perceptions of role conflict is to reduce the reliance on justice systems to address mental health and other service needs. […] Although rehabilitation is a goal of the juvenile justice system, best practices are to divert low-risk youth from the justice system rather than divert high-need (but low risk) youth into the system. Jurisdictions should assess the level and type of community-based services to ensure they are sufficient and available to youth to avoid overreliance on justice-system services.” (p. 427)

Other Interesting Tidbits for Researchers and Clinicians

“As with all studies, our findings do have limitations given the data collected. First, our sample included only males. […] justice-involved female youth are an important and understudied population, and it is possible that their experiences in adult court may differ from their male counterparts. Future research should examine the potential for differential impacts of juvenile transfers on male and female youth. In addition, our entire sample was limited to one secure facility in Southern California. […] additional research should be conducted to investigate the effects of juvenile transfers on perceptions of procedural justice in diverse locations. Our study also shares a common limitation in the procedural justice literature, that we measure only perceptions of just treatment rather than observations of behavior. While it is important that additional research include more observation of courtroom interactions, it is also important to note that perceptions have a real and direct impact on emotional and behavioral outcomes.” (p. 425)

Join the Discussion

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


Authored by Kseniya Katsman

Kseniya Katsman is a Master’s student in Forensic Psychology program at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Her interests include forensic application of dialectical behavior therapy, cultural competence in forensic assessment, and risk assessment, specifically suicide risk. She plans to continue her education and pursue a doctoral degree in clinical psychology.

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