State-legislated transferring or waiving of serious and violent juveniles to adult court began in response to nationwide concern over growing youth violence in the mid-1990s. At the time, the decision to transfer juveniles to adult court was based on a combination of prosecutorial discretion, judicial discretion, and state law. In order to address public and policymakers’ concerns, many states enacted or revised their juvenile transfer criteria, such that juveniles who were charged with certain violent offenses were automatically transferred to adult court (Myers 2003; Jordan 2012).
Prior to the mid-1990s, Pennsylvania law allowed for both judicial waiver to adult court and statutory exclusion of certain offenses from juvenile court. Judicial waiver to adult court was based on the judge’s discretion as to whether the juvenile was still amenable to treatment offered in juvenile court. Judges considered age, mental capacity, maturity, degree of criminal sophistication, prior delinquency, prior treatment experience, chances for rehabilitation, and the nature of the current offense when making juvenile waiver decisions. Juveniles charged with murder and those previously found guilty of a misdemeanor or felony in adult court were the only offenders legislatively waived to adult court jurisdiction.
In 1995, in response to the growing concern over juvenile offending, Pennsylvania legislation modified the Commonwealth’s Juvenile Act (Act 33). The modified Act 33 went into effect in March 1996 and excluded from juvenile courts any juveniles between the ages of 15 and 18 who were charged with murder or a violent offense (rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, aggravated assault, robbery, robbery of a motor vehicle, aggravated indecent assault, kidnapping, voluntary manslaughter, or an attempt, conspiracy, or solicitation to commit any of these offenses); and used a deadly weapon during the offense. Additionally, the act excluded from juvenile court any juveniles who had been previously adjudicated delinquent of any of the aforementioned offenses, except for aggravated assault.
Once juveniles are formally charged with an Act 33 offense, they are automatically processed in the adult justice system. Charged juvenile offenders bypass the juvenile court completely, thereby removing juvenile court judges’ authority to waive a case to adult court or keep the case in the juvenile system. However, the act allows juveniles to request a hearing in order to decertify or reverse the waiver to transfer them back to juvenile court, if the juveniles establish, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the transfer would serve the public interest.
There are two main rationales behind juvenile transfers. First, juvenile transfers to adult court serve as a general deterrent, by treating all juveniles charged with certain violent offenses as adults in order to reduce overall juvenile crime. Juvenile transfers also serve as a specific deterrent by reducing recidivism among juveniles transferred to adult court. The perceived deterrent effect is based on the assumption that juvenile courts are perceived as too lenient or incapable of treating serious offenders, whereas adult courts issue stronger punishments and can handle serious criminality (Myers 2003).