Juvenile Waiver (Transfer to Adult Court)

A judicial waiver occurs when a juvenile court judge transfers a case from juvenile to adult court to deny the juvenile the protections that juvenile court jurisdictions provide. Usually, the alleged offense must be particularly egregious for the case to be waived judicially, or there must be a long history of prior offenses and court interventions.

One of the more debated subjects on juvenile delinquency is the option of waiver or being transferred to adult court. Supporters of juvenile waivers claim that minors who commit murder or other serious offenses need more serious consequences than those provided by the juvenile justice system. Opponents, meanwhile, believe adult courts are never appropriate for minors.

There are a few mechanisms by which a juvenile's case may be waived to an adult court, including statutory exclusion, judicially controlled transfer, prosecutorial discretion transfer, and 'Once an adult, always an adult' transfer.

Judicial Waiver Offenses

Juvenile courts have jurisdiction in 47 states over individuals up to age 17. In five states (Texas, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Missouri), the maximum age was 16. But in 2021, Missouri and Michigan raised their maximum juvenile court age to 17.

All states now provide for judicial waiver. They have set a variety of lower age limits, typically ranging from 12 to 14 (10 in Vermont and Kansas). But close to half of the states have no minimum age requirement.

Statutory Exclusion

Almost half of the states, including Illinois, have statutory exclusions. These provisions in the law exclude certain offenses, such as first-degree murder and other violent felonies, from juvenile court jurisdiction.

Judicially Controlled Transfer

States that use judicially controlled transfers start all cases involving juveniles in juvenile court, regardless of the crime, and must transfer them to adult court. Less than one-third of the states (including Texas) use this method. At least 10 states use a combination of statutory exclusion and judicially controlled transfer.

Prosecutorial Discretion Transfer

A few states (including Michigan) use a prosecutorial discretion approach to the juvenile waiver. Juvenile and adult courts have jurisdiction over certain offenses in these states, and the prosecutor may choose.

'Once an Adult, Always an Adult' Transfer

Most states (California, depending on several factors) also have laws requiring minors who have been previously charged as adults to be prosecuted in adult court for any successive offenses, so long as:

  1. The minor was at least 16 years old at the time of the offense; and
  2. The violation is one in which waiver is allowed

Concurrent Jurisdiction

Some states also have a legal provision allowing the prosecutor to file a juvenile case in both juvenile and adult court because the offense and the accused's age meet certain criteria. Prosecutorial transfer does not have to meet the due process rule stipulated by Kent v. U.S. (1966).

The most important case guiding juvenile waiver is Breed v. Jones (1975). This case designates that a juvenile can't be adjudicated in a juvenile court only to be waived and tried in an adult court. To do so is to try the youth twice for the same crime (in violation of double jeopardy protections), which violates the Fifth Amendment. But, in reality, this case didn't have much impact on the juvenile system as juveniles are subject to a waiver hearing, which appears to be like a trial except for the outcome.

Impact of Transfer to Adult Court

Transfer into an adult court proceeding can result in several negative consequences for the accused. Juvenile proceedings occur in a closed courtroom, while adult criminal court proceedings are typically public. A conviction record is generally sealed for juveniles. Adult criminal records, though, are frequently accessible to the public. Adult penalties tend to be much harsher than the penalties for comparable juvenile offenses.

The juvenile court system tends to focus more on rehabilitating the accused. The adult criminal justice system may be more focused on punishment. Sadly, juveniles who serve jail and prison time are much more likely to be assaulted than those serving time in juvenile facilities.

Are You Being Charged as an Adult? Protect Your Rights With a Criminal Law Attorney's Help

Understanding juvenile waiver involves navigating the intersections of law enforcement practices, criminal law, and court decisions. It's usually in a juvenile's best interest to avoid a juvenile waiver to adult court. Adult penalties are typically much harsher, and the conviction record is much easier to access by third parties later. An experienced attorney can help defend your rights and ensure the best possible outcome. Get started today and find a criminal defense attorney near you.

Was this helpful?

Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Complex criminal defense situations usually require a lawyer
  • Defense attorneys can help protect your rights
  • A lawyer can seek to reduce or eliminate criminal penalties

Get tailored advice and ask your legal questions. Many attorneys offer free consultations.


If you need an attorney, find one right now.