Posted: 22 Sep 2012

Date Written: September 20, 2012


The paradox of American inequality is nowhere more starkly illustrated than in the disparate conceptualizations of adolescence along socio-economic lines. What does it mean to be a teenager – are you preparing for college or preparing for prison? The greater the economic resources a family has, the longer a child in that family can maintain an adolescence-like state of limited responsibility and accountability. The indiscretions of youth are just that: temporary lapses of judgment, small, barely noticeable blemishes on inevitably bright futures. For poor children, the burdens and responsibilities of adulthood are often forced upon them at a much earlier age and when mistakes are made, less leeway is given.

I refer to this phenomenon as “adultification.” Few question the swift application of the “criminal” label to these youth because the context of their lives justifies it. Thus, even though there have been significant legal advances with regard to how adolescents are treated within the criminal and juvenile justice systems, there is still an extreme overrepresentation of poor, minority youth within these systems. Abuse, neglect, domestic and community violence, and poverty all contribute to the adultification of low-income youth. Without effective intervention and help, these youth suffer, struggle, and fall into despair and hopelessness.

Some young teens cannot manage the emotional, social, and psychological challenges of adolescence and eventually engage in destructive and violent behavior. Sadly, many states have ignored the crisis and dysfunction that creates adolescent delinquency and instead view them as adults, subjecting them to further victimization and abuse in the adult criminal justice system.

This project examines the relationship between the adultification of poor, minority youth and the overrepresentation of such youth in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Particularly, I look at the issue of waiver to adult court, and the severity of sentences once the youth are transferred there.

This project argues against the prevailing models through which juvenile court jurisdiction is waived in favor of a more rigorous, in-depth and individualized inquiry into the youth and the circumstances of the offense. The current paradigm is over-inclusive and results in arbitrary decision-making which is evidenced by the extreme overrepresentation of low-income, minority youth among those cases that are waived. Even the best model, judicial waiver, fails to adequately take all relevant factors into account. I set forth a new protocol for juvenile court waiver which directly addresses overrepresentation.

Keywords: juvenile, transfer, waiver, adult court

JEL Classification: K42, K14, J71, J78, J13, I21

Suggested Citation

Forman, Sarah Jane, Kidulthood (September 20, 2012). Available at SSRN:

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