At what age can a child be prosecuted for a felony and tried as an adult?

Asked on December 6, 2013 under Criminal Law, Washington


FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 7 years ago | Contributor

See below the answer to your question.

The traditional rule is that anyone under the age of 18 is a juvenile and will be tried in the juvenile court system.  However, in certain circumstances, almost every state now allows for youths below the age of 18 to be tried as adults.  The rules vary from state to state.

3 Ways to Try Juveniles as Adults

There are three common ways in which to transfer a case from juvenile court to the adult system and try the juvenile as an adult.  These are: 

  • Judicial Waiver - some states give juvenile court judges the power to have a juvenile's case tried in adult criminal court
  • Direct File - sometimes called "Prosecutorial Discretion" - some states give prosecutors the power to decide whether or not a juvenile will be tried as an adult
  • Statutory Exclusion - some states have laws that require a youth's case to be tried in adult court - these laws usually base this automatic transfer on the youth's age, the seriousness or type of crime, and the juvenile's prior record
  • Reverse Waiver – In a few cases, such as murder or rape, the assumption is that a juvenile should be tried as an adult unless the trial court rules that the case should be sent to juvenile court.
  • Once An Adult, Always An Adult - In some states, if a juvenile is tried once as an adult, than the juvenile will be tried as an adult in all subsequent cases.

Examples of State Laws Regarding Transfer of Juveniles 

  • California - a juvenile is anyone under the age of 18.  Anyone 14 years and older can be tried as an adult for serious crimes.  Examples of serious crimes include murder, robbery with a weapon, and rape.  A “once an adult always an adult” policy is enforced as long as the minor was sixteen at the time of the violation and the violation was legally waived. The policy stands regardless whether the minor was convicted or not.
  • New York - a juvenile is anyone under the age of 16, but at least 7 years old.  Children who are 13, 14, and 15 years old who commit more serious or violent crimes can be tried as adults.
  • Illinois - a juvenile is anyone under the age of 17.  Anyone 13 years old and above can be tried as an adult if he or she has a record of previously breaking the law or commits a serious crime.  Minors who are 15 or 16 years old are automatically tried as adults for certain offenses, including murder, aggravated criminal sexual assault, and armed robbery with a firearm.  A “once an adult always an adult” policy is enforced as long as the minor was convicted and sentenced.
  • Florida - a juvenile is anyone under the age of 18.  Florida allows prosecutors, not judges, to decide whether a juvenile will be tried as an adult.  For discretionary waiver, the minimum age is 14 years old in order to be tried as an adult.  For direct filing, the age depends on the crime but no minimum age is set for capital offenses (offenses punishable by death or life imprisonment).  As to statutory exclusions, the minimum age again varies with the crime, but is usually 16 years old. A “once an adult always an adult” policy is enforced as long as the minor was convicted and sentenced.
  • Tennessee – juvenile court may transfer the minor for any crime if the minor is sixteen or older. Murder or rape is automatically transferred. A “once an adult always an adult” policy is enforced unless the original case was acquitted, dismissed or reversed. 
  • Texas - the juvenile court system has power over minors, who are defined to be anyone 10 years of age or older but under 18.  For discretionary waiver, the minimum age is generally 14. A “once an adult always an adult” policy is enforced for felony charges unless the original case was acquitted, dismissed or reversed. 

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

The consequences of transfer are very serious.  You will be tried as an adult and can face the same penalties as adults, including life without parole.  If convicted, you will have an adult criminal record which can significantly affect future education and employment opportunities.  An adult conviction can also result in the loss of rights, including the right to vote and the right to own a firearm.  These are only a few examples of the consequences to transfer and this list is by no means exhaustive.

What Obstacles Would A Juvenile Face in Adult Court?

The consequences of a conviction in an adult criminal court are heavier, but the adult court itself may present challenges during the trial. Most minors lack the reasoning skills to understand what is expected, asked or owed to them by the police, the prosecution and the judge. Even when the juvenile does understand his or her rights, the minor may still lack the experience to use them correctly. Given that actual adults often have trouble understanding their rights this can be a particularly ugly fight for juveniles treated as adults. Some common legal mistakes juveniles make are:

  • Falsely believing that an arrest means they are guilty. As a result, false confessions are common because juveniles don’t fully understand the right to remain silent.
  • Falsely believing they must speak in court.
  • Believing any information regarding their legal status from a police officer or a prosecutor. Making or accepting plea deals should not be done without the assistance of a defense attorney.
  • Waiving their right to a public defender because of a misplaced distrust of authority figures or a misunderstanding that the defense attorney won’t help them.

Why Does My Attorney Want to Transfer My Case To An Adult Court?

Although a juvenile tried as an adult will face harsher penalties if convicted, the minor will also have access to the same constitutional rights that an adult would have, rights which are restricted in juvenile court. The most important right and the main reason a criminal defense attorney would want the trial in adult court is to have the right to a jury trial. Having a jury trial hear a case is extremely important as a jury can be more sympatric to the minor than any judge would be.

I'm a Juvenile Facing Transfer to Adult Court, Do I Need a Lawyer?

Due to the serious consequences and highly complicated nature of a transfer to adult court, a lawyer with experience in the juvenile justice system can be crucial. While there are serious consequences to a transfer, sometimes it is to your advantage to get your case transferred.  An experienced juvenile crime lawyer can assist you in making this determination and dealing with the many complications of transfer.

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