Understanding the Subgroup Complexities of Transfer: The Impact of Juvenile Race and Gender on Waiver Decisions

AuthorSara L. Bryson,Jennifer H. Peck
Date01 April 2020
Published date01 April 2020
Subject MatterArticles
YVJ869398 135..155 Article
Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice
2020, Vol. 18(2) 135-155
Understanding the Subgroup
ª The Author(s) 2019
Article reuse guidelines:
Complexities of Transfer: The
DOI: 10.1177/1541204019869398
Impact of Juvenile Race and
Gender on Waiver Decisions
Sara L. Bryson1
and Jennifer H. Peck1
While prior research has consistently found the presence of extralegal disparities in juvenile justice
decision-making, less research has investigated the combined effects of a juvenile’s race and gender
on the decision to transfer youth to adult court. The current study examines both the individual and
joint influence of race and gender on transfer decisions of all judicial waiver-eligible youth in a
Northeast state from 2004 to 2014. Results indicate that Black males had the highest likelihood of
being judicially waived, followed by White males, then Black females. White females had the greatest
chance of being retained in juvenile court. The findings have important implications for juvenile court
processing by informing researchers, practitioners, and policyholders about potential reform efforts
that target judicial waiver.
race, gender, transfer, waiver, juvenile court
The juvenile court is tasked with balancing both public safety and the developmental well-being of
juvenile offenders (Monahan, Steinberg, & Piquero, 2015) but generally asserts that youth are less
culpable for their behavior and more amenable to treatment compared to adults (Bernard & Kurly-
chek, 2010; Feld, 2000, 2001). Due to rising crime rates in the 1980s and 1990s, confidence in the
ability of the juvenile justice system to reduce youthful offending decreased, and the juvenile court
was seen by the public as being ineffective and too lenient on juvenile offenders (Feld, 1999; Griffin,
2003). As a result, some states lowered the minimum age of juvenile court jurisdiction and excluded
certain offenses and offenders from being processed in the juvenile court. These changes resulted in
a net-widening effect for youth previously treated in the juvenile court to be transferred to adult court
jurisdiction (Kupchik, 2006; Zimring, 2010). As the maximum age for juvenile court jurisdiction
decreased, the number of crimes eligible for waiver increased. Certain offenses were automatically
transferred to the criminal justice system, and an increased number of youth were waived from
1 Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, Orlando, FL, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer H. Peck, Department of Criminal Justice, University of Central Florida, 12805 Pegasus Drive, Orlando, FL 32816,
Email: jennifer.peck@ucf.edu

Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice 18(2)
juvenile to adult court (Glick & Sturgeon, 1998).1 For instance, between 1987 and 1994, the number
of juvenile cases waived to adult court increased by 73% (from 6,800 to 11,700 cases; Stahl, 1999).
However, judicially waived cases have continued to decrease through 2016, yet national estimates
indicate that there may be important discrepancies in the transfer decision across race and gender
(Hockenberry & Puzzanchera, 2018; Puzzanchera & Addie, 2014).
The overall decision to transfer a juvenile to the criminal justice system is based on a variety of
factors. Some of these circumstances include a youth’s amenability to treatment, their prior presence
in the juvenile justice system, and their threat to public safety if released back into the community
(Feld, 1981; Podkopacz & Feld, 1996). These factors relate to the youth and the community
independent of attributes that are static, such as race and gender.2 However, prior research demon-
strates that these elements may not be the only aspects considered when court actors (i.e., prosecu-
tors, judges, etc.) make transfer decisions (Bishop & Frazier, 1996).
Specifically, racial disproportionality in juvenile waivers to adult court is a troubling issue within
both justice systems. The fact that a juvenile’s race has been shown to impact the decision to waive a
juvenile defendant to criminal court net of legal factors is concerning (Bishop & Frazier, 1996;
Brown & Sorensen, 2013). However, prior studies demonstrate inconsistent findings on which
racial/ethnic groups are most subjected to transfer compared to similarly situated Whites. Some
research has indicated that White youth are treated more leniently than minority youth (Bishop &
Frazier, 1996; Brown & Sorensen, 2013; Cheesman, Waters, & Hurst, 2010), whereas other studies
find no evidence of an increased likelihood of transfer for non-White youth (Leiber & Mack, 2003;
Mears et al., 2014; Podkopacz & Feld, 1996).
Another characteristic that has been shown to impact the decision to transfer juveniles to adult
court is the gender of the youth (Cauffman et al., 2007). Similar to the mixed findings regarding race
effects, studies also show conflicting conclusions about gender disparities at the waiver decision. On
the one hand, some studies show that boys are treated more harshly than girls and are more likely to
be waived compared to other dispositional sanctions (Brown & Sorensen, 2013; Cauffman et al.,
2007; Griffin, Addie, Adams, & Firestine, 2011). On the other hand, additional studies find no
differences in waiver outcomes across gender (e.g., Kempf-Leonard & Sontheimer, 1995).
In identifying influential factors of transfer decisions, race and gender should not be significant
determinants in removing youth from juvenile court jurisdiction. Evidence of race/gender effects in
transfer decision-making indicates the possible presence of bias and stereotyping in the perceptions
of court actors and has serious implications for youth of different backgrounds. However, to our
knowledge, only one study has considered the combined impact of both race and gender on transfer
decisions (see Moore & Padavic, 2010), and this study focused only on racial differences for female
youth (e.g., White, Black, and Hispanic females). This void in the literature is surprising, given what
is already known about race and gender disparities throughout other stages in the juvenile court but
not concerning an outcome that potentially treats youth in the same manner as adults charged with
criminal offenses.
The main aim of the current study is to perform a more nuanced examination of how race and
gender characteristics are potential predictors of juvenile waiver. Specifically, we examine both the
individual and combined impact of a juvenile’s race and gender on judicial waiver decisions in a
sample of transfer-eligible youth. By including both males and females referred to the juvenile court
for transfer-eligible offenses, the results of the current study may help detect disparities or com-
monalities in decision-making regarding the demographic characteristics of youth. On a broader
level, the results have important implications for court processing in this specific state as well as
juvenile courts throughout the United States. If race and gender in combination continue to influence
decision-making with recent data from a state known for progressive juvenile justice reform efforts,
it will provide policy makers as well as researchers with valuable information regarding current

Bryson and Peck
waiver decision-making. Additionally, the results can inform strategies for reducing disparities in
the outcomes of waiver-eligible youth.
Empirical Background
Race and Gender Disparities in the Transfer Decision
The philosophy of the juvenile court stands in stark contrast to that of the adult criminal court.
Theoretically, the juvenile justice system focuses on a youth’s lifestyle in addition to factors
surrounding an offense. Within this foundation, the juvenile court considers not only a juvenile’s
amenability to treatment, danger to the community, and prior record but also their family life, school
performance, and neighborhood factors (Bilchik, 1999; Brown & Sorensen, 2013). When juveniles
are removed from juvenile court jurisdiction, the focus shifts from the adult court’s responsibility of
meeting the juvenile’s needs and deterring future delinquency, to an emphasis on the type of
punishment to be received based on the offense committed. Notably, Kent v. United States (1966)
established that due process is critically important for cases where juveniles are eligible to be waived
to the criminal justice system. After the Kent decision, courts throughout the United States began
adopting policies for transferring youth to adult court.
As an illustration of the change between the goals of both systems, prior research has shown that
older adolescents, those with prior records, and serious/violent offenders have a greater possibility of
being waived than their counterparts. This increased risk of punishment rather that rehabilitative
opportunities may be due to perceptions by decision makers that these youths are more culpable for
their offending and less amenable to treatment (Feld, 1981; Lehmann, Pickett, Ryon, & Kosloski,
2017; Podkopacz & Feld, 1996). Juveniles with the abovementioned qualities are believed to be
“different” and seen as deserving greater sanctions than can be offered by the juvenile court. Some
court actors argue that transferring youth to adult court holds juvenile offenders more accountable,
protects the community, and results in a decrease in juvenile crime (Bishop, Frazier, Lanza-Kaduce,
& Winner, 1996). However, the purpose of waiving youth does not align with the overarching
philosophy of the...

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