Prosecutorial Power Unrelated to Drop in Crime

By Jeffrey Butts
Special to The Sun

The state of Florida continues to send more juvenile offenders to adult prison than any other state in the nation. It is one of only 14 states that allow prosecutors alone to decide which children are tried as adults, and one of only three states that does not allow a judge to review the decision.

State Attorney offices in Leon County and Alachua County recently claimed that prosecutorial discretion to decide which children are tried as adults has led to Florida enjoying “the lowest crime rate we have had in 44 years.” The Leon County state attorney suggested that the prior practice of requiring prosecutors to petition a judge to transfer a child to the adult system was somehow connected to Florida having had “the highest crime rate in the nation” at that time.

These assertions are not supported by relevant data. Despite a sustained effort to study these policies over the last two decades, researchers have not found that increasing prosecutorial power reduces crime, and the practice of putting young people in the adult criminal justice system is not only ineffective, it has many negative side effects.

Moreover, Florida is not the only state where crime plummeted in recent years. The steep decline in crime is a national — even international — trend.

According to recent statistics from the U.S. Department of Justice, rates of youth violence across the country are half what they were in the mid-1990s. Crime rates fluctuate from year to year, but violence is still generally lower than at any time since the 1970s.

Importantly, the size of the violent crime drop was about the same in states where prosecutors do not enjoy the unchecked power to send children to adult court.

The Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City studied the uses of criminal-court transfer and the scale of declining crime in Florida and in all other states where detailed data allowed fair comparisons — Arizona, California, Ohio, Oregon and Washington.

The results failed to support the arguments of Florida’s prosecutors.

While juvenile violence dropped 57 percent in Florida between 1995 and 2010, it fell in the other states too. Compared with other states, in fact, Florida’s crime drop was about average.

The largest drop was in Ohio, where violent juvenile crime plunged 74 percent after 1995, followed by Arizona (down 65 percent) and Oregon (63 percent lower). California and Washington saw juvenile violence drop nearly as much as in Florida (50 percent and 54 percent, respectively).

If Florida prosecutors were correct, these variations in the falling rate of juvenile violence would follow a pattern. Namely, we would see the largest crime declines in the states that transferred the most juveniles to criminal court.

Florida’s use of transfer (approximately 165 transfers per 100,000 youth population in one recent year) was nearly double that of its closest competitors, Oregon and Arizona (96 and 84 per 100,000, respectively). Yet, both of those states beat Florida in the crime drop.

In fact, the state with the lowest use of transfer was Ohio at 20 per 100,000, but Ohio’s crime decline of 74 percent was the steepest of all six states.

Many researchers looked for the causes of the violent crime decline. Possible explanations range from broad changes in social attitudes and economic conditions, to the effects of technology on the idle time of teens, and varying patterns of illegal drug use.

One thing no credible study ever did was to locate the source of the crime drop in the power of prosecutors to send youth to adult courts and adult prisons. There is just no compelling evidence to suggest that prosecutors may rightfully claim the credit for falling rates of violent youth crime. Not even in Florida.

— Jeffrey Butts is the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. This pieces was submitted in response to the Jan. 8 column from State Attorney William P. Cervone.