In many states, black juveniles end up in adult court in high numbers

African-American juveniles wind up in adult court — and serving time in adult prisons — in disproportionate numbers. Advocates argue that their confinement as adults and with adults does little to prepare them for a crime-free life upon release.
African-American juveniles wind up in adult court — and serving time in adult prisons — in disproportionate numbers. Advocates argue that their confinement as adults and with adults does little to prepare them for a crime-free life upon release. TNS

Warren Germain was 16 years old in 2011 when he was arrested on a burglary charge in Miami-Dade County, Florida. He’d already spent time in a juvenile residential program, so this time the prosecutor decided to try him as an adult.

Germain was sentenced to a year-long adult boot-camp program plus probation. He was the only juvenile in the program, among 60 to 70 inmates, most of whom were in their 20s. Being surrounded by adult criminals was difficult, he recalls. “A lot of people were really a--holes,” he said. It also meant the only education available to him was a G.E.D. high school equivalency program, he said.

Like a disproportionate number of juveniles who are charged as adults, Germain is black.

And as in the case of a disproportionate number of juveniles charged as adults, it didn’t work: His sentence led not to rehabilitation, but to another brush with the law. A year after his release, Germain was again charged with burglary and sentenced to three years in prison after the judge saw the previous adult sentence.

Germain’s situation spotlights what statistics show is a common phenomenon across the criminal justice system: African-American juveniles wind up in adult court in disproportionate numbers. Advocates argue that their confinement as adults and with adults does little to prepare them for a crime-free life upon release – the traditional purpose of juvenile criminal procedures.

In Florida, for example, two-thirds of juveniles transferred to the adult system are black, in a state where half the juveniles arrested are African-American, according to state confinement statistics. The disparity is even more obvious when one considers that fewer than 50 percent of Florida’s prison inmates are black. The state’s population is 17 percent African-American.

Florida isn’t the only state where the disparity exists. An analysis of prison inmate data from nine states, including Texas and Illinois, found that African Americans who were juveniles at the time of their crimes make up a larger than expected proportion of the adult prison population. The same pattern, though weaker, holds for Hispanic youths as well.

Carmen Daugherty, policy director of the Youth First Initiative, an organization that advocates for less incarceration of juveniles, said the effect of routing juveniles into the adult system is clear in the high rate at which such inmates return to crime once their sentences are complete: Their recidivism rate is 34 percent higher than equivalent offenders who remain in the juvenile system.

When Gunenion Nicolas was 15, he was part of a group that robbed two people with a gun. He was sentenced to five years in adult prison, most of which he spent at Lancaster Correctional Facility in northern Florida. Florida Department of Corrections

“We know it doesn’t have a deterrent effect,” she said of sentencing juveniles to adult prison time.

Studies by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and university researchers concur. “Transferring juveniles to the adult system is counterproductive as a strategy for preventing or reducing violence,” wrote the authors of one CDC analysis.

Transferring juveniles into the adult system also cancels out the beneficial effect that simply getting older is thought to have on criminal activity. Young offenders incarcerated with adults, numerous studies have shown, tend to spend their time in prison being assaulted, watching assaults and learning criminal behavior from other inmates.

Prior to the 1990s, most states allowed judges to decide if a juvenile should be tried as an adult. But in the 1990s, many states took that discretion away, mandating that certain violent offenses automatically trigger adult charges. North Carolina and New York treat all 16-year-olds as adults. Florida requires that all people over the age of 16 charged with a violent crime be tried as adults; prosecutors there can also try people younger than 16 as adults, at their discretion.

Proponents of “adult time for adult crime” policies say the laws have worked. Buddy Jacobs, general counsel of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said that the state’s prosecutorial discretion law has been a success. The law is referred to as “direct file” because prosecutors can directly file juveniles to adult court without judicial oversight.

“Juvenile crime was rampant in Florida. A bunch of kids killed tourists. They were stealing cars like crazy, and none of them were going to jail. It was rampant,” Jacobs said. “They gave us direct file, we utilized it, and now crime is down.”

Critics say such a cause-and-effect relationship is hardly clear, and note that while juvenile crime rates have declined nationally by more than half in the last two decades, adult crime also has dropped by a similar rate.

And the impact of such laws is remarkably consistent across the states where records are available. Among all inmates listed as black or white in the nine analyzed states, roughly half the adults are black, while six in 10 juvenile transfers are. The most extreme case is Kentucky, where 20 percent of adult inmates are black, but 40 percent of juvenile transfers are black. Eight percent of Kentucky residents are black.

State data reporting on juvenile transfers is limited; a Department of Justice review from 2011 found, “Currently, only 13 states publicly report the total number of their transfers, and even fewer report offense profiles, demographic characteristics, or details regarding processing and sentencing.”

McClatchy arrived at the conclusions for this article by taking prison data for inmates who were 18 or younger when they committed a crime and comparing that information with demographics of the adult prison population, for nine states where that data was available. Racial disparities were found in Florida, Kentucky, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, New Jersey, Texas and Wisconsin.

Nebraska was the only state analyzed that did not show a disproportionate share of transfer inmates being black or Hispanic, and only in Illinois did demographics of juvenile transfers match the juvenile arrest rates.

“There is over-representation of minorities across the board, wherever you are in the system,” said Carla Barrett, a sociologist who studies juvenile justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

Presented with these findings, Jacobs, of the Florida Prosecuting Attorneys Association, defended the system. “We’re color-blind in charging people,” he said. “We have black prosecutors in Florida, but the white folks are [color-blind] too. When you direct file someone, they’re really a bad dude.”

But not all prosecutors agree. “To say of Florida prosecutors, ‘every single one is colorblind,’ is naive at best,” said Melba Pearson, a former Miami prosecutor and president of the National Black Prosecutors Association who now serves as deputy director of the Florida ACLU. “Everyone has unconscious bias of some sort, and Florida prosecutors are human beings.”

“These kids are growing up with trauma, growing up seeing violence in their communities. Their lives and their futures shouldn’t be destroyed by going into the adult system,” said Pearson.

Defense attorneys said the data on racial disparities match their experiences with juvenile transfers.

“I don’t have any clients who were [transferred to adult court] who were not black males,” said Melissa Rosenblum-Pisetzner, an attorney in Atlantic County, New Jersey. “All my waivers have been black, I can say without any hesitation, except for one Hispanic female who we pled to a long juvenile sentence.”

Just over half Atlantic County’s inmates are black, while nearly 90 percent of its juvenile transfer inmates are.

There have been moves to refine the treatment of juveniles. A number of states, including Illinois, have raised the age of criminal liability to 18. Last summer, the Illinois legislature ended mandatory transfers. In November, Californians passed a ballot measure to end prosecutors’ ability to try juveniles as adults, instead giving that authority to judges.

In Florida, New York and North Carolina, efforts to change the law are languishing in state legislatures, however.

For advocates, ending prosecutorial control over transfers is a major goal. “We need to have a juvenile court judge that is trained in adolescent development and knows what works to get them back on track reviewing these cases on a case-by-case basis,” said Marcy Mistrett, CEO of the Campaign for Youth Justice, a group that works to end the practice of sentencing juveniles as adults.

Gunenion Nicolas, now 21, of Fort Pierce, Florida, is another black juvenile who was sentenced as an adult. When he was 15, he was part of a group that robbed two people at gunpoint. He was sentenced to five years in adult prison, most of which he spent at Lancaster Correctional Facility, in northern Florida.

For Nicolas, the worst part of prison was the fear. “You could always end up getting stabbed, cut, or hit on the head,” he said. He belonged to a gang for safety. “I started falling away from the gang, but if anything happened, I had no choice but to go back with them.”

Now that Nicolas is out of prison, he is unemployed. His record makes finding work hard, he said. “Everywhere I go look for a job they ask for a background and then I get an email saying they don’t want me due to my background.” In April, he said, he started a culinary arts program at Virginia College, an unaccredited for-profit higher education chain with a Fort Pierce campus.

At 21, Nicolas has spent almost a quarter of his life in adult prison.

“I’m not going back,” he said.

Christopher Huffaker was a data reporting intern for McClatchy’s Washington Bureau. Reach him at