Jurisdictional boundaries

How have the boundaries of juvenile justice changed? States must address boundaries of childhood and adulthood in the context of addressing 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.

The JJGPS content on this topic is organized in five national comparison sections: 

  • delinquency age boundaries explores the differences in the lower and upper age limits for juvenile justice jurisdiction and age limits for which the system can extend standard oversight of juveniles who come before the court for delinquency
  • transfer discretion presents the broad view across four decades of policy shifts for transfer to criminal court decisions
  • transfer provisions organizes information about specific transfer provision types or transfer pathways created in state statute
  • compare transfer provisions users can query state transfer statutes by provision, minimum age, and offense types over time
  • transfer trends line charts display changes in how transfer provisions are used, based on publicly available national and state reported data.

Additional state details, including age boundary and transfer provision summaries, are available by clicking on a state shape or name in a national comparison map or table.

Delinquency age boundaries detail

States address where childhood ends and adult criminal responsibility begins by specifying age boundaries in law. Age criteria can be found in various areas of law, which are organized by subject into statutes, also known as codes. Statutes specify which court has original jurisdiction, or initial authority, to rule on a particular matter within certain areas of law. Youth in conflict with the law may be subject to municipal court, criminal court, or juvenile court jurisdiction, depending on the systems of statutes and court organization of the particular state.

  • The upper age boundary refers to the oldest age at which an individual’s alleged conduct can be considered delinquent and under original juvenile court jurisdiction. For federal violations, the Federal Juvenile Delinquency Act (18 USC § 5031-5042) defines juvenile delinquency as “the violation of a law of the United States committed by a person prior to his 18th birthday which would have been a crime if committed by an adult....” In a great majority of states, the upper age boundary has traditionally been age 17. 
  • Some states identify lower age boundaries in juvenile statutes, and/or rely on common law (case law), court rules, and penal codes to assist with age parameters in practice. Fewer than 20 states specified a lower age boundary for delinquency in juvenile statutes in 2015. 
  • The extended age boundary is defined as the highest age the juvenile court can retain original jurisdiction over an individual who was involved with the juvenile court for delinquency before reaching the end of the upper age boundary. It includes the highest age identified in statute to complete juvenile dispositions, sanctions, and services, encompassing offense and consent requirements. It excludes restitution, incapacity, blended sentence options, and formal specialty court exceptions, such as drug court dispositions, that would otherwise raise the extended age to full-term.

Transfer provision detail

Transfer provisions are organized into three main categories from a juvenile court perspective:  1) when a juvenile court hearing is required before trying a minor as an adult; 2) times when minors can initially face charges in (adult) criminal court; and 3) mitigating provisions that let the criminal court judge send a minor to, or back to juvenile court and judicial sanctioning that includes a blend of juvenile delinquency dispositions and adult criminal sentences.

Judicial Waiver (Juvenile Court Original Jurisdiction)-refers to statutes that specify when the juvenile court may or must waive its jurisdiction at a hearing before a minor can be tried as an adult. Qualifying conditions vary, but generally reflect the state’s minimum age of (adult) criminal responsibility, and tend toward transferring a minor’s violent felonious offenses to the jurisdiction of criminal court. 

  • Discretionary waiver These statutes specify when the prosecutor can request a hearing to prove that a particular matter should be prosecuted in (adult) criminal court instead of juvenile court.  Some states set limits on when the judge can raise the issue of transfer “upon its own motion,” and a few states provide opportunities for others to raise the matter.  
  • Presumptive Waiver These statutes specify age and offense combinations that the legislature considers appropriate for an adult criminal court trial or adult-level punishment, but grants the juvenile (defense) the opportunity to argue to remain under juvenile court jurisdiction.  Prosecutors do not have to prove the matter is appropriate for criminal court.
  • Mandatory Waiver These statutes specify when the juvenile court must formally waive its jurisdiction for (adult) criminal court prosecution after finding that qualifying conditions are met.  Some states use the opportunity to ensure due process protections for minors facing allegations in criminal court or for when a juvenile demands an adult criminal trial. 

Criminal Court Jurisdiction:  These statutes permit minors to initially face allegations in (adult) criminal court without a decision from the juvenile court judge.  Decisions are made by the prosecutor or by legislative exclusion.  

  • Prosecutor Discretion (Concurrent Jurisdiction or “Direct File”) These statutes typically give juvenile and criminal court “concurrent,” or shared jurisdiction over certain age and offense combinations. The prosecutor can directly file allegations or charges in either court. While some states have statutory criteria for the prosecutor’s decision, there is no formal opportunity for other parties to review or evaluate whether reasons are valid before the charging decision is made.  It is considered an executive branch decision.  

Exclusive or Original Criminal Court Jurisdiction-The legislature retains the decision by setting mandates.

  • Statutory Exclusion Certain age and alleged offense combinations are excluded because the legislature directs exclusive or original jurisdiction to (adult) criminal court. The legislature is considered the decision-maker, as no hearing is required and prosecutors have no choice about where the court process must begin. Prosecutors retain some control, however, by selecting which charges to pursue; or when particular offenses are excluded only upon grand jury indictment.  In some states, prosecutors seek out and lead grand juries through that process.
  • Once/Always Adult Once a juvenile-aged person has been convicted or had sanctions imposed by criminal court, these legislative exclusions require that any future delinquent allegations be brought instead before the (adult) criminal court. Some states add that that the triggering conviction must be for an offense that would qualify for criminal prosecution, rather than a lesser offense of the same transaction.

Mitigating Provisions These statutes specify when the (adult) criminal court judge can transfer its jurisdiction to juvenile court or authorizes judges to order a blend of juvenile and/or adult sanctions. States sometimes grant placement and release decisions to executive branch agencies or permit prosecutors to seek grand jury indictments that authorize particular sentences, but are not considered transfer provisions. 

  • Reverse Waiver These statutes specify how and when the (adult) criminal court judge may or must waive its jurisdiction to send a minor’s entire case to juvenile court for adjudication and/or disposition. Criteria for the decision usually mirror what the juvenile court judge must consider for transfer to criminal court. Reverse waiver does not include when juvenile court has the ability to temporarily monitor a juvenile sanction when the (adult) criminal court judge retains jurisdiction over the case.
  • Juvenile Blended Sentence These statutes specify when juvenile court can retain jurisdiction over a juvenile’s case while imposing juvenile and/or (adult) criminal sanctions. Some states require a legal status determination with labels such as “extended jurisdiction juvenile,” that grants due process protections similar to those available in criminal court before a blended sentence can be imposed.  States typically authorize contingent imposition of a delinquency disposition and a suspended adult criminal sentence, in which incarceration may or must be invoked if the juvenile is deemed “not amenable” to juvenile rehabilitation or violates terms of the juvenile sanction.  States sometimes mandate a ‘re-determination’ hearing at the age of majority or other intervals to determine whether adult sanctions are (still) necessary and  whether the juvenile court may or must retain jurisdiction beyond the extended age of delinquency. When states require that the judge commits a minor to the custody of an executive agency that is able to move a minor from a juvenile to an adult facility or to release the juvenile without any further judicial approval for an indeterminate sanction, it is not considered a transfer provision.
  • Criminal Blended Sentence These statutes permit criminal court’s retention of jurisdiction over youth while imposing a juvenile-only disposition, or a combination of juvenile and adult sanctions. Some states mandate when the criminal court judge may or must adjudicate a juvenile delinquent, and/or impose juvenile disposition sanctions, instead of a criminal sentence.  Many states require a legal status determination, often with labels such as “youthful offender,” before imposing a criminal blended sentence.  These designated adult categories afford protections similar to those for delinquent juveniles, such as criminal record expungement and differential sentencing from (other) adults. A blended criminal sentence often involves a suspended adult criminal sentence of incarceration pending successful completion of juvenile sanctions, which can include confinement in a juvenile facility.  If the criminal court revokes the juvenile sanction due to “non-amenability” or upon violation, the adult sentence may or must be imposed. Some states mandate that the criminal court judge hold a re-determination hearing at the age of majority before the adult portion of a blended sentence can be carried out. When the criminal court judge can order temporary juvenile court monitoring or commits the minor to an executive agency that may place the minor in a juvenile facility until a certain age or provide for a pre-determined course of secure juvenile and/or adult incarceration without further judicial approval, it is not considered a blended sentence.

Comparing transfer provisions

When viewing the state comparison for 2012 filtered by “no age specified,” we see that there are 26 transfer pathways (in 22 states) with no minimum age specified. Discretionary waiver laws are the most likely to be written broadly to apply to any criminal/delinquency offense. Scrolling through the age filters one can see that the most common minimum age specified in state transfer laws is age 14. There are 22 states that set age 14 as the minimum for their discretionary waiver and laws that set minimums for other transfer pathways at 14.

By setting the filters for “any criminal offense” and “no age specified” we see that only Alaska, Delaware, and Washington have discretionary waiver laws that are broad not only in terms of age but in terms of offense as well. Click state names to drill down to more detail on their transfer laws.

Changing the offense filter to “murder” shows that Delaware has mandatory waiver for murder for any age youth and that Hawaii, Idaho, Maine, Oregon, South Carolina, Tennessee and West Virginia all have discretionary waiver laws that target youth of any age if they are charged with murder. Nevada and Pennsylvania go so far as to exclude youth charged with murder, regardless of their age. Several other states use language that specifies capital offenses (Florida, Georgia, Maryland and Rhode Island) or certain felony offenses (Arizona, Idaho, Indiana, Maine, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, South Dakota, and West Virginia) for transfer with no minimum age specified.

Policy changes for the United States filtered by “murder” shows that the number of states with statutory exclusion statutes that specifically targeted youth charged with murder rose from 20 in 1997 to 22 by 2004. Adding the “no age specified filter” shows that several states allow juvenile court judges the discretion to make waiver decisions even when very young children might be involved. It was much less common for laws to allow prosecutors to make that decision, whether the law targeted murder, capital offenses, or certain felony offenses.

About this project

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.

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