In general, a juvenile will be tried as an adult when they reach the age of majority, which is 18 years of age in most states. Thus, unless a state has enacted particular laws on juveniles being tried as adults, the main factor that will dictate whether a juvenile is tried as an adult is their age. It should be noted that the age of majority can vary from state to state.

In states that have statutes on juveniles being tried as adults, the reasons will usually depend on various factors. These include: the nature of the crime, the severity of the crime, whether the minor knew what they were doing and how serious the crime was, if the minor is a repeat offender, and/or whether they have been tried as an adult prior to the case before the court.

The main reason as to why trying a juvenile or minor as an adult can be alarming is because juvenile sentencing guidelines for crimes are usually less severe than the punishments imposed on adult criminal defendants who are convicted in a standard criminal court. Therefore, a juvenile criminal defendant will typically want to avoid being tried as an adult unless it is legally required and they have no choice or their lawyer recommends it.

To learn more about the differences between the juvenile court system and the adult criminal justice system, you should speak to a local criminal defense attorney in your area for further legal advice.

3 Ways to Try Juveniles as Adults

There are three primary ways to try a juvenile criminal defendant as an adult. These include by:

  • Statutory exclusion: Many states impose what is called a “statutory exclusion” when specific conditions exist in a juvenile’s criminal case, such as if they committed a serious crime like murder, they are found to be a repeat offender, or they have reached the legal age limit to be tried as an adult. In the event that a statutory exclusion applies, a juvenile defendant will automatically be tried as an adult in criminal court.
  • Direct file: Direct file, also known as “prosecutorial discretion,” is another way that a juvenile can be tried as an adult in certain states. This means that a prosecutor will have the power to decide whether a juvenile defendant should be tried as a minor or as an adult criminal defendant.
  • Judicial waiver: In some states, the decision of whether to transfer a juvenile defendant to an adult criminal court will be left up to the discretion of the judge presiding over the case. In which case, the judge will simply initiate the transfer by ordering that the juvenile be tried as an adult.

Examples of State Laws Regarding Transfer of Juveniles

The following is a list of examples of state laws that concern the transferring of juvenile criminal defendants to an adult criminal court:

  • Florida: Florida considers any minor who is under the age of 18 to be a juvenile. However, if other factors are present in a particular juvenile’s case, they can be tried as an adult as early as at 14 years of age. Florida law also leaves the decision up to the discretion of the attorney who is prosecuting the case, as opposed to judges like the laws in some other states.
  • Illinois: Illinois defines any individual who is under the age of 17 as a minor child. However, if a juvenile is a repeat offender or if they committed a serious crime, then they can be tried as an adult as early as the age of 13. Minors between the ages of 15 and 17 can be statutorily excluded and tried as an adult if they commit violent crimes, such as first-degree murder, armed robbery, or rape.
  • California: The state of California considers anyone who is under the age of 18 to be a minor, but juveniles can be tried as adults as early as by the age of 14 when they commit a serious or violent crime like murder or aggravated sexual assault. A minor can also be tried as an adult if they were previously tried as an adult in the past for a different crime.

What Crimes Can Juveniles Be Charged as Adults

As previously mentioned, a juvenile can be charged as an adult when they turn 18 years of age in most states. However, some states may impose a younger or older age limit depending upon the crime that a minor committed. Some examples of crimes that may result in a juvenile being charged and tried as an adult criminal defendant include:

  • Serious felony offenses or violent crimes, such as first-degree murder, rape, armed robbery, drug trafficking, and so forth;
  • Criminal acts that are classified as wobbler crimes under a particular state criminal statute; and
  • Criminal offenses that a minor repeatedly commits and for which rehabilitation programs or a juvenile detention center has failed to prevent from recurring.

What Are the Consequences of Being Transferred to an Adult Court?

A juvenile criminal defendant can face very serious consequences when they are transferred to an adult court and are being tried as an adult. Some common examples of the types of repercussions that a minor may face if they are transferred to an adult court and/or convicted as an adult may include the following:

  • They may receive a harsher sentence than they would if they were tried as a minor in a juvenile court (e.g., a prison sentence for life without parole);
  • They may establish an adult criminal record, which can affect their employment and educational opportunities;
  • They may experience the loss of certain legal rights enjoyed by adults, such as voting in elections, applying for loans, owning firearms, and so forth;
  • It will become harder to get their criminal record sealed or expunged; and
  • They will lose some of the alternative sentencing options that they may have been granted in a juvenile court.

What Obstacles Would a Juvenile Face in Adult Court?

The sentencing guidelines for adult criminal defendants who are convicted in a standard criminal court are usually much harsher than the punishments issued to juvenile criminal defendants who are convicted in the juvenile court system. However, a juvenile criminal defendant may encounter some less obvious obstacles in an adult criminal court as well.

For instance, the majority of juvenile defendants lack the capacity to truly comprehend what a criminal court may be expecting or asking of them due to their age. Even in cases where a minor does understand what a court is expecting or asking of them, they may still lack the maturity and ability to properly apply those lessons. If adult criminal defendants face these same hurdles, then one can only imagine how hard it may be to overcome them as a minor.

Some other common obstacles that a juvenile criminal defendant may face in an adult criminal court can include:

  • Resisting the advice of their criminal defense attorney;
  • Waiving their right to a public defender due to minors’ distrust of authority figures;
  • Speaking out in court or making remarks even though this kind of behavior is not allowed;
  • Agreeing to a deal offered by a law enforcement officer or district attorney without understanding the deal or its consequences; and
  • Wrongly assuming that just because they were arrested means that the court or a jury will find them guilty of the charges.

Why Does My Attorney Want to Transfer My Case to an Adult Court?

In most instances, an attorney will decline to transfer a juvenile criminal defendant’s case to an adult court since the legal consequences issued for convicted adult criminal defendants are typically much harsher than they are for convicted minors. However, there are a few scenarios in which an attorney may request to transfer a juvenile’s criminal case to an adult criminal court.

One of the most common reasons as to why an attorney may want to transfer a juvenile’s criminal case to an adult court is so that the minor can have access to the same constitutional rights as an adult criminal defendant. The juvenile court system typically restricts the constitutional rights of juvenile criminal defendants.

Specifically, an attorney is likely seeking to preserve the constitutional rights afforded to adult criminal defendants under the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which includes the right to a speedy public trial and the right to an impartial jury.

The juvenile court system only offers bench trials, not jury trials. This can be problematic for some juvenile criminal defendants since jurors are often more sympathetic than judges when it comes to sentencing minors.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

Juvenile crime is a special field of law that essentially requires knowing the main differences between juvenile and adult criminal proceedings. Lawyers who are trained to handle cases within this area of the law will already be familiar with the various legal rights and protections granted to juvenile criminal defendants, as well the types of punishment they may receive if they are found guilty of their accused crime.

Generally speaking, the more experience that a lawyer has in dealing with juvenile criminal law and court proceedings, the better a juvenile criminal defendant’s chances are of getting a fair trial and/or a correlating punishment.

Lawyers who possess this level of knowledge about juvenile criminal law will also have an advantage when it comes to trying a minor as an adult since they will often know when this may occur and possibly how a minor can avoid being tried as an adult.

Accordingly, if you are a juvenile criminal defendant who is facing charges for a crime for which you may be tried as an adult, then it is strongly recommended that you consult with and hire a local juvenile lawyer as soon as possible.

A criminal lawyer who specializes in juvenile crimes will be able to review your charges and can conduct legal research to determine if there are any defenses you can raise against the charges or that may help you to avoid being tried as an adult.

Your lawyer will also be able to provide guidance on the state and/or local laws in your county and can help you to navigate the procedural requirements for either the juvenile court or the adult criminal justice system. In addition, your lawyer can provide legal representation in juvenile or criminal court.

Depending on your charges and whether you are ultimately tried as an adult or a juvenile criminal defendant, your lawyer can also assist you in petitioning the court for an alternative sentencing method if you are convicted and can argue on your behalf for why you should receive the proposed alternative sentencing option instead.