Transfer Cases

What is transfer?

In the state of California, the term “transfer” refers to sending youth charged with a crime committed when under the age of 18 from the juvenile justice system to the adult system. The differences between the juvenile and adult systems are significant. The juvenile system includes far more educational and rehabilitative programming and services designed to help youth accept responsibility, while addressing the underlying issues that contributed to law enforcement contact. The juvenile system is better able to involve family or other caring adults in these services, and to offer activities and opportunities that allow youth to grow up in a healthy way. The adult system primarily relies on incarceration in local jails or in state prisons for what may be a significant amount of time, even decades. This page describes the issues involved in transfer and PJDC’s involvement in them. PJDC has also published a guide to educate the family and friends of a youth navigating the transfer process. This guide is available for free download in English — Transfer to Adult Court: A Guide for Families in Californiaand in Spanish — La Transferencia al Tribunal para Adultos: Una Guia para la Familia en California through the links on this page.

The adult system is not equipped to provide youth with the same educational and rehabilitative services as the juvenile justice system. Moreover, handling through the juvenile justice system allows youth to avoid or reduce the impact of many of the lifetime collateral consequences of the adult court system.  Also, the juvenile system enhances long term prospects for youth to complete their education and obtain employment —and provides greater opportunities for youth to contribute to their communities.

“…[T]he certification of a juvenile offender to an adult court has been accurately characterized as ‘the worst punishment the juvenile system is empowered to inflict.”

(Ramona R. v. Superior Court (1985) 37 Cal.3d 802, 810))

Why should the public care about transfer?

Transfer changes lives, making the trajectory rehabilitation healthy development monumentally more difficult, and risky, for youth.

In adolescence, character is still forming. Some of the process of character formation and a youth’s attempts to develop and express individual identity involve heightened risk-taking. Adolescents, as a group, are overrepresented statistically in virtually every category of reckless behavior, including criminal activity. Further, an adolescent’s brain functions differently than an adult’s and, on average, adolescents are less likely to consider properly the consequences of particular actions than adults.

Due to the unique nature of adolescence as a developmental stage, behavior in adolescence does not necessarily predict criminal conduct of the same individual as an adult. In fact, most delinquent adolescents – even those who were involved in very serious offenses — do not continue to engage in violent illegal conduct as mature adults. The transitory nature of adolescence means that youth are much more likely to change, especially when provided with age-appropriate resources.

California’s juvenile justice system is specifically designed for youth. The state’s adult criminal system — including courts, lawyers, processes, jails and prisons — is designed for adults. California’s juvenile justice laws take into consideration the developmental stage of adolescence. They require every youth in the system to receive care, treatment and guidance that meets their individual needs. In contrast, in California’s adult prisons, treatment and rehabilitative services are not required and are often unavailable even when a person in prison wants to participate. Similarly, youth held in juvenile system facilities must receive the same level of educational services as youth in the community, but the adult system has no such requirements, and it is difficult to access academic educational services in jail or prison.

Scientific research has shown a strong correlation between age and declining criminal activity — an “aging out” of crime. Additional research has shown that youth are less likely to commit new crimes as adults if they are handled in the juvenile system as adolescents rather than in the adult system. In fact, a U.S. Department of Justice analysis showed that transfer laws have little or no general deterrent effect in preventing serious juvenile crime.

What transfer does accomplish is to subject the affected youth — 92% of whom are youth of color — to a range of physical and psychological harm during their time as the youngest and most vulnerable members of the adult prison population. They are much more likely to experience sexual and physical victimization than older inmates. Their opportunity to be exposed to the positive and pro-social models known to contribute to healthy development will be substantially diminished in adult prison.

Keeping youth in the juvenile justice system does not mean that dangerous persons will be released into the community. If a youth in the juvenile justice system presents a continuing danger to the public, he or she will not be released. Existing California laws allows the Division of Juvenile Justice to petition a court to continue to incarcerate a person past the age of 25 in such cases.

The importance of considering adolescent development in the context of the criminal justice system has been recognized and repeatedly applied in United States Supreme Court decisions involving youthful offenders. In the most recent decision, Miller v. Alabama, the court confirmed that children are not deserving of the most severe punishments due to their diminished culpability and high prospects for rehabilitation.

PJDC Court Process

“I made one mistake. It was not the sum total of who I was.”

(R. Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom, poet, poetry teacher for middle school students; formerly incarcerated as a youth.  Statement in Amicus Brief submitted by Former Juvenile Offenders in Graham v. Florida (2010) 560. U.S. 48)

PJDC Mom and Daughter

What is a transfer hearing?

In California, since the enactment of Proposition 57 in November 2016, juvenile court judges are the only people who decide if a youth should be prosecuted as an adult. The transfer decision is based on a series of factors including:

  • criminal sophistication;
  • time available within the juvenile court jurisdiction to rehabilitate the youth;
  • past delinquent history;
  • the success of previous interventions; and
  • the gravity of the offense and the youth’s role in it.

In applying those factors, the judge may consider the following:

  • immaturity;
  • presence of disabilities;
  • impact of influence by other youth or adults;
  • past experience of trauma;
  • failures of other systems to provide needed services;
  • services available in the juvenile system;
  • capacity for change; and
  • facts about the actual offense that lessen impact of the youth’s involvement.

At the transfer hearing, the judge considers the social study report prepared by the probation officer and any evidence of presented by the defense or the prosecutor. The judge analyzes the evidence and the totality of circumstances. If the judge decides keep the youth in juvenile court, the case moves forward as it would have before the transfer hearing. If, on the other hand, the court decides the youth should be transferred, the juvenile case is dismissed and the case may be filed in adult criminal court. If convicted in criminal court, the youth is sentenced using adult laws and may be sent to state prison — sometimes for decades.

“It’s difficult to see, right after trouble, that someone is deserving of an opportunity. People are dying from the lack of opportunity every day.”

(R. Dwayne Betts, author of A Question of Freedom, poet, poetry teacher for middle school students; formerly incarcerated as a youth. Statement in Amicus Brief submitted by Former Juvenile Offenders in Graham v. Florida (2010) 560. U.S. 48).  

PJDC’s commitment to end transfer

Science has shown us that youth are not simply miniature versions of adults, but rather, are neurobiologically different from them. Because the human brain continues to develop and mature up until age 25, all youth under 18 years of age should be treated in the juvenile system. Even youth who engage in violent, dangerous, or otherwise harmful behavior are unlikely to continue down that road. The science behind adolescent brain development has firmly established that a youth’s personality is not fully formed in the teenage years but rather continues to be subject to great growth and change. The person he or she was at age 17 is very different from the person he or she will be at age 25.

Understanding that impulsivity and immaturity are hallmark features of youth, and that most youth who have contact with law enforcement may have additional issues that need treatment, PJDC is committed to educating the public as to why we need to treat youth differently — even those youth who have committed the most serious offenses. By treating youth as the young people they are instead of reflexively subjecting them decades of incarceration in the adult system, we enable youth to receive the services and care they need — and at the same time ensure greater public safety.

“No matter how broken their spirit, nor how violent their actions, juveniles can be redeemed and can make contributions to society that would be tragic to lose. It is impossible to know what any juvenile offender will grow up to become.”

(Amicus Brief submitted by Former Juvenile Offenders in Graham v. Florida (2010) 560. U.S. 48.)