Trial venue decisions in juvenile cases: Mitigating and extralegal factors matter

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Purpose. This study assessed whether the characteristics of juvenile offenders and their victims affected respondents' decisions regarding whether a juvenile offender should be transferred to the adult criminal justice system.

Method. Participants (N = 758) read a scenario about a juvenile accused of murder and decided whether the youth should be tried as an adult or as a juvenile. The age of the offender (11-, 13- or 15-years-old), the sex of the offender, abuse history and victim type (neighbour or father) were varied. After indicating jurisdictional preference, participants read a series of statements (e.g. importance of punishment) and rated how important each was in their decision.

Results. Significant main effects and complex interactions between defendant gender, age and abuse history were found. In general, younger defendants were more likely than older defendants to be recommended for juvenile court. Overall, juvenile offenders with a history of child abuse received less harsh verdicts. For males, a history of abuse affected decisions about trial venue and verdict both alone and in combination with other factors such as age, sex and relationship to victim. Results supported a mediational model in which extralegal and mitigating factors influenced the importance of a ‘just desserts’ orientation, which, in turn, influenced jurisdictional decisions.

Conclusion. Despite a recent tendency for policymakers to pass legislation that requires more juveniles be sent to adult courts, the present study suggests that the public does not support automatic transfers to adult courts and that mitigating factors are important to their jurisdictional decisions.

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