Crime & Delinquency
2018, Vol. 64(5) 563 –586
© The Author(s) 2017
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Juveniles on Trial: Mode
of Conviction and the
Adult Court Sentencing
of Transferred Juveniles
Peter S. Lehmann,1 Ted Chiricos,1
and William D. Bales1
Several studies have compared the criminal court sentences given to
transferred juveniles with those given to adults, but this research has
reported inconsistent findings. In addition, some research has found that
mode of conviction can interact with offenders’ characteristics, resulting
in stronger or weaker effects of these factors among defendants convicted
at trials. The current study explores the direct effects of juvenile status on
sentence severity and whether these effects are conditioned by mode of
conviction. Examination of data from Florida circuit courts (N = 1,107,233)
shows that transferred juveniles are less likely to be incarcerated than adults
but are given longer incarceration sentences. Interaction analyses reveal that
these disparities are weaker among trial cases than among plea cases.
juvenile transfer, age, mode of conviction, sentencing, trial
Since the early 1990s, every U.S. state has either implemented or revised
legislation that facilitates the transfer of juvenile offenders to the adult court
(Griffin, Addie, Adams, & Firestine, 2011; Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014).
1Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA
Peter S. Lehmann, College of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Florida State University, 112
S. Copeland Street, Tallahassee, FL 32306, USA.
714203CADXXX10.1177/0011128717714203Crime & DelinquencyLehmann et al.
564 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
Concerns about the prospect of rising juvenile crime rates among members of
the public created a context where punishing juveniles who commit “adult
crime” with “adult time” became an important feature of criminal justice
political agendas (Myers, 2005; Zimring, 1998). As a result, the “get tough”
era of punishment saw the expansion of legal mechanisms designed to trans-
fer more juvenile offenders to the adult court (Butts & Mears, 2001; Singer,
1997). In light of these policy shifts, a small but growing literature has
explored the criminal court punishment of transferred juveniles relative to
similar adult defendants. The findings from these studies have been mixed,
with some reporting evidence that transfers are subjected to a “juvenile pen-
alty” in sentencing (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2004, 2010) and others docu-
menting null, mixed, or negative effects of juvenile status (Johnson &
Kurlychek, 2012; Jordan, 2014; Jordan & McNeal, 2016; Steiner, 2009).
There is another body of research that has found that the impact of legal
and extralegal factors in sentencing can interact with mode of conviction.
Specifically, a trial conviction has been shown to moderate the effects of the
defendants’ demographic and case characteristics on sentence severity
(Bradley-Engen, Engen, Shields, Damphousse, & Smith, 2012; Johnson,
2003; Ulmer & Bradley, 2006; Ulmer, Eisenstein, & Johnson, 2010).
However, the role that trials may play in conditioning these variables is theo-
retically ambiguous. For instance, trials may strengthen the positive effects
of aggravating factors as well as the negative effects of mitigating factors,
producing greater disparities in sentencing according to these characteristics.
Conversely, trials may weaken the effects of both aggravating and mitigating
factors, resulting in reduced disparities in punishment severity. By strength-
ening or weakening the influence of juvenile status, mode of conviction may
condition the sentencing of transfers relative to adults. Two prior studies have
examined this issue (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2004; Steiner, 2009), but these
studies, which reported contradictory findings, were limited in terms of the
ages of the adult defendants under study, the number of cases available, and
the time frame of the data.
With the goal of advancing scholarship on the sentencing of transferred
youth as well as the literature on the moderating effect of conviction mode,
the present research explores the direct effects of juvenile status on sentence
severity and the potential interaction of juvenile status with a trial conviction.
We begin our analyses by examining whether adults of different age groups
are sentenced more or less harshly than transferred juveniles at two stages of
sentencing. We then assess whether the disparities between adults and juve-
niles in punishment are strengthened or weakened by mode of conviction.
Before describing our data and analytic strategy, we first review prior empiri-
cal and theoretical developments related to the sentencing of transferred
Lehmann et al. 565
juveniles in the criminal court. Next, we discuss the ways that mode of con-
viction might condition the effect of juvenile status. We then present the
research questions to be addressed in the current study.
Sentencing Transferred Juveniles in the Adult
In response to the punitive turn in juvenile justice policies, the past few
decades have seen a substantial increase in research interest surrounding the
issue of juvenile transfer. Some studies have focused on exploring the factors
that predict the sentences transfers receive in the adult court (e.g., Carmichael,
2010; Lehmann, Chiricos, & Bales, 2017). Other research has examined
whether there are punishment disparities between transferred youth and com-
parable youth who were retained in the juvenile court, and many of these
studies have reported that transferred juveniles are sanctioned more harshly
(e.g., Jordan & Myers, 2011; Lemmon, Austin, Verrecchia, & Fetzer, 2005;
Myers, 2003; cf. Kupchik, 2006). The goal of these latter studies is to estab-
lish whether the adult criminal court provides more swift and severe punish-
ments than the juvenile court, thereby increasing accountability and creating
a mechanism of both general and specific deterrence for juvenile offenders.
Extending this body of work, Kurlychek and Johnson (2004, 2010) pro-
posed that juvenile status may be consequential for punishment relative to
comparable adult offenders as well. They argued that juvenile offenders who
are transferred to adult court are sentenced under the “criminal justice model”
rather than the “juvenile justice model” because they have been distinguished
as possessing adult criminal culpability (Kupchik, 2006). These youth are,
therefore, not “normal” juveniles (Zimring, 1998) or “true” juveniles (Mears
et al., 2014) who can be rehabilitated through juvenile justice system inter-
vention. Thus, to investigate whether transferred juveniles are given dispa-
rately harsh sentences in the adult court, a useful approach might involve
comparing the sentences given to transfers with those given to adults as both
groups are punished under the same criminal justice model.
In line with this rationale, six prior studies have compared the sentencing
outcomes of transferred juveniles with those of adults, but the findings among
these studies have been inconclusive. Using Pennsylvania data on defendants
ages 24 and younger, Kurlychek and Johnson (2004) found that juvenile status
was positively associated with an incarceration sentence as well as sentence
length. Kurlychek and Johnson (2010) conducted a similar study using data
from Maryland and reported that transferred juveniles were more likely to be
incarcerated and were given longer sentences than comparable young adults. In
Steiner’s (2009) analysis of 1998 data from 37 urban counties, he found that
566 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
transfers were more likely to receive a prison sentence than adults ages 18 to
29. Using data from both Pennsylvania and Maryland, Johnson and Kurlychek
(2012) observed that juvenile status was associated with the use of upward
sentencing guideline departures; however, they also found in Maryland that
juveniles were more likely than young adults to receive downward departures.
Jordan (2014) made an important advancement to this research by incor-
porating adults older than age 30 in his analysis, and he found mixed support
for the existence of a “juvenile penalty” in sentencing. His analyses revealed
that transferred youth were not more likely than adults of any age to receive
sentences to jail, and they were only more likely to receive prison sentences
and were sentenced for longer jail terms than adults ages 60 and older.
However, transfers received significantly longer prison sentences than young
adults ages 18 to 29. Using the same data as Steiner (2009), Jordan and
McNeal (2016) observed that juveniles were less likely to receive sentences
to jail compared with adults of all ages, though they received longer incar-
ceration sentences than all adults.
Several theoretical perspectives have been proposed to explain why extra-
legal factors, including juvenile status, may impact sentencing outcomes. In
her theory of causal attributions, Albonetti (1991) argues that the information
available to judges is limited and that court actors must make sentencing
decisions in a context of “bounded rationality.” To account for this limitation,
judges can rely on stereotyped attributions that connect the characteristics of
defendants to their likelihood of recidivism and the level of danger they pose
to the community (see also Bridges & Steen, 1998; Farrell & Holmes, 1991).
Thus, judges can develop a system of “patterned responses” such that the
extralegal factors that are perceived to be associated with reoffending, such
as race, ethnicity, gender, and age, can be predictive of harsher sentences.
Another perspective that is closely related to Albonetti’s (1991) posits that
there are three focal concerns that guide judicial actors in the sentencing pro-
cess (Steffensmeier, Ulmer, & Kramer, 1998). These include blameworthiness,
protection of the community, and practical constraints and consequences.
Blameworthiness refers to the culpability of the offender, and it suggests that
defendants who are viewed as having demonstrated a greater degree of crimi-
nal intent or are more centrally involved in the offense are deserving of harsher
sentences. Community protection relates to judges’ desire to enhance the safety
of the community by delivering more severe punishments in cases involving
offenders who demonstrate a heightened level of dangerousness or recidivism
risk. Finally, when sentencing, judges may consider practical constraints and
consequences, which can include bureaucratic and organizational circum-
stances, courtroom workgroup relations, the availability of criminal justice
resources, and the needs and circumstances of the offenders themselves.
Lehmann et al. 567
In light of these perspectives, it is theoretically plausible that juveniles
may be sentenced more harshly than adults. In accordance with the focal
concerns of blameworthiness and community protection (Steffensmeier
et al., 1998), court actors may be inclined to view transferred youth as rep-
resenting a particularly dangerous class of offender who should be pun-
ished severely (Lehmann, Pickett, Ryon, & Kosloski, 2017). While adults
are sentenced in the criminal court by default, transferred juveniles are spe-
cially selected for sentencing in the adult court by virtue of the seriousness
of their offenses or the extensiveness of their prior records. As a result,
juvenile status may act as a “causal attribution” (Albonetti, 1991) that iden-
tifies these defendants as “violent, compunctionless, or incorrigible offend-
ers” (Johnson & Kurlychek, 2012, p. 532) who are unamenable to
rehabilitation. In addition, because juveniles have yet to reach the peak
offending years of young adulthood, they may be perceived as presenting a
greater recidivism risk and a danger to the community, whereas adults may
be expected to desist from crime upon release. Thus, the disparately harsh
punishment of transferred youth might be understood as a utilitarian
response to serious youth crime as judges may view incarceration as an
effective means of incapacitating and deterring serious juvenile lawbreak-
ers (Jackson & Pabon, 2000). Given these considerations, it is conceivable
that juvenile status may operate as “an important decision-making cue for
identifying the most dangerous, most culpable, or most intractable young
offenders” (Kurlychek & Johnson, 2010, p. 731).
There is also a reasonable theoretical rationale to anticipate that trans-
ferred youth will be sentenced less severely than adults. Specifically, the
focal concerns of blameworthiness and practical constraints and conse-
quences may render juvenile status a mitigating factor in sentencing. Youth
offenders may be viewed as less blameworthy or culpable than adults because
they lack maturity in their decision-making or because they have not fully
developed a moral understanding of right and wrong (Cauffman & Steinberg,
2000; Kupchik, 2006; Zimring, 2000). Such diminished capacity may also
imply that juveniles will not be deterred by harsh sentences (Zane, Welsh, &
Mears, 2016), and judges might, therefore, view the especially severe treat-
ment of this population to be counterproductive. Regarding practical con-
straints and consequences, incarceration alongside adult criminals may be
viewed as a non-ideal form of punishment for juveniles due to an absence of
suitable detention facilities or the possibility of in-prison victimization
(Reddington & Sapp, 1997). Furthermore, while the Juvenile Justice and
Delinquency Prevention Act (JJDPA) prevents “sight and sound” contact
between incarcerated adults and youth, this provision does not extend to
transferred juveniles. As a result of juveniles’ limited responsibility as well as
568 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
the practical considerations of adult incarceration, the especially harsh sen-
tencing of transfers may be viewed through a utilitarian lens as an inappropri-
ate response to youthful offending (Jackson & Pabon, 2000). In light of these
considerations, judges may rely on “the historical precedent of attributing
less culpability and offering ‘second chances’ to youthful offenders” (Johnson
& Kurlychek, 2012, p. 554), and transferred youth might be treated more
leniently than adults.
The Moderating Role of a Trial Conviction
The right to a jury trial guaranteed in the Sixth Amendment to the Constitution
is a central component of the U.S. criminal justice system. Although very few
criminal cases proceed to trial, a substantial body of literature has reported
that there is a “trial penalty” in sentencing such that defendants convicted
through trials receive harsher sentences than similar defendants who plead
guilty. Indeed, building on early empirical work examining the organization
of court processes (Eisenstein & Jacob, 1977; Rhodes, 1979; Smith, 1986),
many studies have found substantial disparities in sentence severity between
trial and plea defendants across offender subgroups, court contexts, and sen-
tencing outcomes (e.g., Albonetti, 1997; King, Soule, Steen, & Weidner,
2005; LaFree, 1985; Ulmer, 1997; Ulmer & Kramer, 1996). Theoretically,
these disparities may suggest that plea bargains symbolize expressions of
remorse or the acceptance of responsibility by defendants, which judges may
perceive as demonstrating decreased blameworthiness (Bradley-Engen et al.,
2012; Ulmer, 1997). Alternatively, because trials are time- and resource-
intensive endeavors that decrease the efficiency of courts, judges may penal-
ize those who do not plead guilty because trials are “unpleasant, conflictive,
and disruptive of court community working relations” (Ulmer & Bradley,
2006, p. 635; see also Hardin, 1993).
In addition to the extensive research on the trial penalty per se, prior schol-
arship has explored the various ways in which jurisdictional or defendant
characteristics can interact with mode of conviction to affect sentence sever-
ity. For example, research has shown that the degree to which trial-plea dif-
ferences in sentencing exist can be attributed, in some measure, to variations
in caseload pressure (Brereton & Casper, 1982; Johnson, Ulmer, & Kramer,
2008; Wooldredge, 1989) and levels of court bureaucratization (Dixon,
1995). Other research has explored the possibility that mode of conviction
may moderate the effects of case and offender characteristics on sentence
severity. Such characteristics include offense type and prior record (Kramer
& Ulmer, 2009; Ulmer & Bradley, 2006; Ulmer et al., 2010), time to convic-
tion (Bradley-Engen et al., 2012), and race and ethnicity (Johnson, 2003).
Lehmann et al. 569
However, the findings regarding whether these factors have stronger or
weaker effects among trial cases have been mixed, and competing theoretical
rationales have been proposed to explain these relationships.
Defendants’ characteristics such as prior record, race/ethnicity, and juve-
nile status may exert stronger effects among trial cases than among plea cases
(Johnson, 2003; Ulmer & Bradley, 2006; Ulmer et al., 2010). For instance,
the independent aggravating effects of certain “causal attributions” (Albonetti,
1991; Bridges & Steen, 1998) might be more pronounced among trial cases
than plea cases because trials allow prosecutors to emphasize those attributes
as “bad facts” in court. In this way, specific characteristics of defendants may
be presented during the process of a trial to “dirty up” defendants and heighten
perceptions of defendants’ blameworthiness and dangerousness to facilitate
conviction, and these perceptions among judges can then carry over into sen-
tencing (Kramer & Ulmer, 2009; Ulmer & Bradley, 2006). Thus, trials can
“mobilize more negative emotional responses and criminal stereotypes” in
sentencing because these aggravating factors have been emphasized at trial
(Ulmer et al., 2010, p. 568). Mitigating factors might have stronger effects
among trial cases as well. For example, trials may allow defense attorneys to
further humanize defendants and emphasize their extralegal attributes as
indicative of their deservingness of lenient treatment, which might lead to an
even more sympathetic consideration of these characteristics in sentencing
(Ulmer et al., 2010). As a result, the “causal attributions” that identify defen-
dants as less blameworthy or dangerous might be viewed even more favor-
ably because these “good facts” have been dramatized at trial.
It is also plausible that mode of conviction may condition the effects of
defendants’ characteristics such that these attributes have weaker effects
among trial cases. For factors that typically aggravate sentence severity, such
as race, ethnicity, offense type, and prior record, trials might “provide a con-
text in which the defense might be effective in presenting the defendant in a
better light, bringing out extenuating circumstances, or telling the defendant’s
story in a way that mobilizes judicial sympathy” (Ulmer & Bradley, 2006, pp.
660-661). Thus, trials and the sentencing hearings that follow them may
“present the opportunity for the court to see and sympathize with such defen-
dants as complex individuals, rather than as . . . one-dimensional stereotypes”
(Ulmer et al., 2010, p. 585). It is likewise possible that generally mitigating
factors may exert weaker negative effects on sentence severity among trial
cases than among plea cases. As Ulmer and Bradley (2006, p. 659) speculate,
“a guilty plea lets one hide the ‘ugly facts’ of a case,” while an unsuccessful
trial “puts the ugly facts right out in the open, where they can influence
judges’ constructions of the blameworthiness or dangerousness of defen-
dants” (see also Ulmer, 1997). It is also possible that, because trials can be
570 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
highly visible spectacles, judges may wish to take a “tough on crime”
approach in cases in which they would otherwise be lenient because their
decisions are being subjected to media, political, and public scrutiny (Ulmer
& Bradley, 2006; Ulmer et al., 2010).
In light of the preceding discussion, the interactive relationship between
juvenile status and mode of conviction could theoretically follow one of four
patterns. First, if juvenile status were positively associated with sentence
severity, the defendants’ juvenile status may be presented by prosecutors at
trial as a “bad fact” that exacerbates perceptions of dangerousness and threat,
leading to even more severe sentencing. Second, if the effects of juvenile
status were negatively related to sentence severity, this mitigating tendency
may be further strengthened by a trial conviction, possibly due to a visible
and sympathetic portrayal of juvenile defendants’ age by the defense during
trial. Third, where juvenile status generally increases sentencing severity, a
trial conviction may weaken the effects of juvenile status because defense
attorneys are able to emphasize these defendants’ reduced culpability. Finally,
the negative impact of juvenile status on sentence severity may be tempered
by a trial conviction as a result of juvenile defendants being “dirtied up” at
trial or judges perceiving a need to sentence them more harshly in response
to increased public attention.
Through any of these four mechanisms, sentencing disparities between
transferred juveniles and young adults could be meaningfully impacted by
mode of conviction. Among the six prior studies that examined the direct
effects of juvenile status, only two tested interactions between juvenile status
and a trial conviction. Kurlychek and Johnson (2004) reported that trial-plea
disparities in sentence severity were larger for juveniles than for young
adults, indicating that mode of conviction strengthens the aggravating effects
of juvenile status. Steiner (2009), however, found that the effects of a trial on
the likelihood of receiving a prison sentence were greater for young adults
than for transferred youth, suggesting that the “juvenile penalty” is weakened
by a trial conviction. Given the inconclusive findings of these two studies as
well as the mixed evidence regarding the direct effects of juvenile status, it is
clear that additional empirical scrutiny of these issues is warranted.
The present study advances the previous research on the sentencing of
transferred juveniles and the conditional effects of a trial conviction on juve-
nile status in several ways. First, while Kurlychek and Johnson (2004) and
Steiner (2009) restricted their studies of the conditional effect of mode of
conviction to defendants younger than ages 25 and 30, respectively, the pres-
ent analysis follows the example of Jordan (2014) and Jordan and McNeal
(2016) and examines the interaction of age and a trial conviction among six
adult age groups relative to transferred juveniles. Second, this study makes
Lehmann et al. 571
use of data that include a larger subsample of transferred juvenile defendants
than has been used in any prior research. These data also contain a sizable
number of defendants convicted at trials, thus enabling a reliable examination
of the interaction of interest. Finally, this is the first assessment of how mode
of conviction might condition the effects of juvenile status using data that
extend past 1999.
On the basis of the foregoing considerations, this study will address the
following research questions:
Research Question 1: Does juvenile status in the adult court increase or
decrease the likelihood of receiving an incarceration sentence, and is it
positively or negatively associated with incarceration sentence length?
Research Question 2: Are the effects of juvenile status conditioned by
mode of conviction such that disparities in sentence severity between
transferred juveniles and adults are strengthened or weakened by a trial
Data and Method
This study uses data from the Florida Sentencing Guidelines database,
which is maintained by the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC). All
offenders ages 14 and older at the time of offense who were convicted of
felonies and subsequently sentenced in the state’s circuit courts between
1995 and 2006 were identified. In addition to capturing information on the
entire population of defendants sentenced in Florida, these data include an
abundance of information about the offenders, including the total number
of sentencing guidelines points assigned to each case. These records were
matched to the data contained in the FDOC Offender Based Information
Database (OBIS), which includes further information about the defendants.
The study population is comprised of 1,107,233 defendants, including
30,773 transferred juveniles. In all, 21,226 defendants were convicted at
trials, including 642 transferred juveniles. Less than 1% of cases were
dropped due to missingness. The descriptive statistics for the study vari-
ables are presented in Table 1.
Our analyses focus on two stages of the sentencing decision: a sentence to
incarceration and, among those receiving such a sentence, the length of the
incarceration term. Several scholars (e.g., Harrington & Spohn, 2007;
Holleran & Spohn, 2004) have recommended that prison and jail sentences
572 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
not be conflated because these sentences are unlikely to be viewed by judges
as similarly punitive, and they suggest that scholars treat these sentences as
discrete outcomes. In the present context, very few defendants who were
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics: Juvenile and Adult Felony Cases Sentenced in
Florida Circuit Courts, 1995-2006.
Yes 447,759 40.44
No 659,474 59.56
Sentence length (Ln) 2.00 1.76
Age at offense
14-17 30,733 2.78
18-20 165,709 14.97
21-29 353,399 31.92
30-39 317,099 28.64
40-49 183,843 16.60
50-59 45,250 4.09
60+ 11,200 1.01
Mode of conviction
Trial 21,226 1.92
Plea 1,086,007 98.08
Race and ethnicity
Black 483,898 43.70
Hispanic 105,186 9.50
White 518,149 46.80
Male 903,643 81.61
Female 203,590 18.39
Primary offense type
Violent offense 185,295 16.73
Sex offense 20,718 1.87
Property offense 353,654 31.94
Drug offense 398,829 36.02
Other offense 148,737 13.43
Case seriousness 40.97 45.68
Scored to prison
Yes 290,993 26.28
No 816,240 73.72
Note. N = 1,107,233. Sentencing year and judicial circuit dummies are not displayed.
Lehmann et al. 573
convicted by trials received sentences to jail, including only 16 transferred
juveniles. As a result, modeling the interaction of interest on the likelihood of
a jail sentence produces highly unreliable results. We, therefore, use as our
first dependent variable a dichotomous outcome of a sentence to incarcera-
tion (=1) versus a sentence to community supervision. While considering jail
as a unique outcome would be useful, the traditional approach of modeling
the in/out decision can be conceptually useful because it emphasizes defen-
dants’ loss of personal liberty as a result of a prison or jail sentence.
Among the offenders who received incarceration, we analyze sentence
length, measured in months. Because the distribution of sentence length is
heavily skewed, this measure is logged. Some defendants received less than
a month of incarceration (and were, thus, coded as 0), so a constant of 1 was
added to all values before logging. The regression coefficients can be inter-
preted as percent changes in sentence length due to 1-unit increases in the
Independent and Control Variables
The independent variables of primary importance are age and mode of con-
viction. Juvenile status is based on the age of the defendant at the time of the
offense. In Florida, 18 years old is the age of juvenile court exclusion.
Therefore, offenders in our population whose age at offense is between 14
and 17 years old are identified as juveniles. Six adult defendant age groups
are included in the analyses: 18 to 20, 21 to 29, 30 to 39, 40 to 49, 50 to 51,
and 60 and older. Juveniles are used as the reference category. Mode of con-
viction is measured using a dummy variable that indicates whether the defen-
dant was convicted by a trial (=1) or a plea bargain.1
A number of control variables are included that prior research has identi-
fied as associated with sentencing outcomes. Race and ethnicity are measured
using three mutually exclusive dichotomous variables. Black is operational-
ized as Black/non-Hispanic (=1), and Hispanics are coded as 1 if the race or
ethnicity variable in the OBIS data identified the case as such. A supplemen-
tary method of identifying whether an offender is Hispanic involved compar-
ing the surnames of offenders not originally designated as Hispanic with the
U.S. Census list of Hispanic surnames (Word & Perkins, 1996). Offenders
whose last names are on this list of surnames were also coded as Hispanic.
This method was used to ensure that Hispanics were not undercounted in the
data due to missingness on the ethnicity variable in the OBIS data. White
offenders are identified by whether the case is coded as White/non-Hispanic in
the database (=1). Due to their extremely small sample size (less than 1%),
Asians, Native Americans, and Pacific Islanders were excluded. White is used
574 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
as the reference category in the analyses. Sex is measured as a dummy vari-
able, with females used as the reference category. Primary offense type is mea-
sured using five dichotomous variables: violent, sex, property, drug, and
“other.” For defendants who were sentenced for multiple offenses, the most
serious offense as determined by the guidelines is selected and coded as 1.
Property offense is used as the reference category in the analyses.
We also employ a single comprehensive measure of case seriousness,
which reflects the total number of sentencing guidelines points assigned to
each particular case. This score includes points based on the primary offense
as well as any secondary offenses, enhancement points, and prior record
points. Secondary offenses consist of any other offenses in addition to the
primary offense for which the defendant was sentenced. Enhancement points
are applied at the discretion of the judge and indicate whether a case involved
certain aggravating factors, including the endangerment of law enforcement,
drug trafficking, gang membership, the use of a weapon, or domestic violence.
Prior record points are assigned based on the number and severity of defen-
dants’ prior court adjudications. Because transferred juvenile cases are, on
average, more serious than those involving young adults (Johnson &
Kurlychek, 2012), the use of such a precise and inclusive measure is necessary
to control for the potential confounding of the effects of juvenile status due to
legally relevant case characteristics. In addition, to control for whether a sen-
tence to prison is recommended by the Florida sentencing guidelines (Engen
& Gainey, 2000), defendants who had a case seriousness score of 44 points or
more were coded as “yes” on the variable “scored to prison.” An examination
of the variance inflation factor (VIF) revealed no issues of multicollinearity.
Finally, we include fixed effects for each of the 12 sentencing years and
each of Florida’s 20 judicial circuits. The inclusion of the sentencing year
dummies accounts for changes in sentencing trends over time, and the circuit
dummies control for variation in sentencing practices between circuits. The
descriptive statistics and coefficients for these variables are not displayed in
the tables to conserve space.
Our analysis proceeds as follows. To address our first research question con-
cerning the impact of juvenile status, we estimate binary logistic regression
models to determine the direct effects of each adult age group, relative to
transferred juveniles, on the likelihood of a sentence to incarceration. Next,
among those defendants who received a sentence to incarceration, we use
ordinary least squares (OLS) regression to estimate the direct effects of age
on incarceration sentence length.2 To answer our second research question
Lehmann et al. 575
regarding the conditional role of mode of conviction, we compute multiplica-
tive terms between each age category and a trial conviction and use logistic
regression to examine the effects of this interactive relationship on likelihood
of an incarceration sentence. This procedure is then repeated in an OLS
regression model of sentence length among defendants who received sen-
tences to incarceration.
Direct Effects of Juvenile Status
Displayed in Model 1 of Table 2 are the logistic regression estimates for the
independent effects of age, mode of conviction, and the controls on the likeli-
hood of a sentence to incarceration. These results indicate that being a trans-
ferred juvenile is significantly negatively predictive of a sentence to
incarceration, and members of all six adult age groups are more likely than
juveniles to be incarcerated. All of the included covariates have significant
effects on the likelihood of an incarceration sentence as well. Specifically, trial
cases, Blacks, males, drug, and “other” offenders are more likely than plea
cases, Whites, females, and property offenders to be sentenced to incarcera-
tion upon conviction. Hispanic ethnicity, violent offenses, and sex offenses are
negatively associated with an incarceration sentence, while case seriousness
and scoring to prison are positively associated with this outcome.
Model 2 in Table 2 estimates the direct effects of age and the covariates on
incarceration sentence length using OLS regression. In contrast with the
model predicting the in/out decision, these results indicate that juvenile status
is positively associated with sentence length, with transferred juveniles
receiving significantly longer sentences than five of the six adult age groups.
While the coefficient is negative, young adults ages 21 to 29 comprise the
only adult age group that does not receive significantly longer incarceration
terms than juveniles. As in Model 1, trial cases, Blacks, males, those with
higher levels of case seriousness, and those who scored to prison receive
longer incarceration terms than others. Hispanics in this model receive longer
sentences than Whites. In addition, violent and sex offenders are punished
with longer sentences than property offenders, while drug and “other” offend-
ers are given shorter sentences.
Moderating Effects of Mode of Conviction on Juvenile Status
Shown in Model 3 of Table 2 are the estimates of the interactive effects of
juvenile status and mode of conviction on the likelihood of receiving an
576 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
Table 2. Logistic and OLS Regressions of a Sentence to Incarceration and
Sentence Length (Ln).
Direct effects Interactive effects
Sentence length (Ln)
Sentence length (Ln)
Ages 18-20 × Trial — — — — −0.328** 0.719 0.105 0.003
Ages 21-29 × Trial — — — — −0.219 0.803 0.214*** 0.012
Ages 30-39 × Trial — — — — −0.276* 0.758 0.250*** 0.014
Ages 40-49 × Trial — — — — −0.407** 0.665 0.292*** 0.012
Ages 50-59 × Trial — — — — −0.290* 0.747 0.301*** 0.006
Ages 60+ × Trial — — — — −0.204 0.814 0.265* 0.002
Ages 18-20 0.052*** 1.054 −0.073*** −0.013 0.057*** 1.059 −0.078*** −0.014
Ages 21-29 0.454*** 1.576 −0.008 −0.002 0.458*** 1.581 −0.016 −0.004
Ages 30-39 0.660*** 1.935 −0.062*** −0.016 0.664*** 1.943 −0.071*** −0.018
Ages 40-49 0.740*** 2.096 −0.152*** −0.033 0.746*** 2.108 −0.163*** −0.036
Ages 50-59 0.639*** 1.894 −0.214*** −0.025 0.643*** 1.902 −0.225*** −0.026
Ages 60+ 0.253*** 1.288 −0.274*** −0.014 0.256*** 1.292 −0.284*** −0.015
Trial 1.102*** 3.010 1.026*** 0.103 1.380*** 3.977 0.801*** 0.081
Black 0.566*** 1.762 0.029*** 0.008 0.566*** 1.762 0.029*** 0.008
Hispanic −0.153*** 0.857 0.092*** 0.014 −0.153*** 0.857 0.092*** 0.014
Male 0.558*** 1.747 0.152*** 0.028 0.558*** 1.747 0.152*** 0.028
Violent offense −0.457*** 0.632 0.115*** 0.024 −0.457*** 0.632 0.115*** 0.024
Sex offense −1.327*** 0.265 0.085*** 0.007 −1.327*** 0.265 0.084*** 0.007
Drug offense 0.382*** 1.465 −0.274*** −0.076 0.382*** 1.465 −0.274*** −0.076
Other offense 0.259*** 1.296 −0.191*** −0.037 0.259*** 1.296 −0.191*** −0.037
Case seriousness 0.014*** 1.014 0.008*** 0.289 0.014*** 1.014 0.008*** 0.289
Scored to prison 0.901*** 2.462 1.409*** 0.395 0.901*** 2.462 1.409*** 0.395
Intercept −2.829*** 0.059 1.639*** — −2.833*** 0.058 1.647*** —
R2.279 .556 .279 .556
N1,107,233 447,759 1,107,233 447,759
Note. Ages 14 to 17, plea, White, female, property offense, and not scoring to prison are used as the
reference categories. Sentencing year and judicial circuit dummies are not displayed. OLS = ordinary least
*p < .05. **p < .01. ***p < .001.
incarceration sentence, net of the covariates. The main effects of age should
be interpreted in this model as the effects of membership in each adult age
group relative to transferred juveniles among plea cases. The pattern of find-
ings here closely mirrors that shown in Model 1, with adults of all ages sig-
nificantly more likely than juveniles to receive a sentence to incarceration.
The interaction terms involving age and mode of conviction reflect the
changes in the effect of belonging to each age group associated with a trial
conviction relative to the effects of age among plea cases. All six interaction
Lehmann et al. 577
terms are negative, though two fail to achieve statistical significance. These
results suggest that the disparities between adults and juveniles in the likeli-
hood of incarceration, which consistently disadvantage adults, are condi-
tioned by mode of conviction, such that these differences are weaker among
trial cases than among plea cases. The coefficient for mode of conviction
represents the effect of a trial conviction among transferred juveniles, and it
shows that being convicted by a trial is positively associated with incarcera-
tion for these defendants.
Presented in Model 4 of Table 2 is the OLS regression of incarceration
sentence length on the interaction between juvenile status and mode of con-
viction, net of the controls. As before, the main effects of each age group
should be interpreted as the effects of membership in these categories relative
to juveniles on sentence length among plea cases. These coefficients mirror
those seen in Model 2 and suggest that adults, except for young adults ages
21 to 29, are sentenced to significantly shorter incarceration terms than trans-
ferred juveniles. Regarding the interactions between the age categories and
mode of conviction, all the multiplicative terms are positive, and five of the
six are statistically significant. These interactions indicate that the disadvan-
taging effects of being a juvenile relative to an adult are conditioned by mode
of conviction, such that they are weaker among trial cases than plea cases.
Understood differently, the findings suggest that juvenile-adult disparities in
sentence length are less prominent for cases convicted at trials. As before, the
main effect of mode of conviction indicates that a trial conviction is associ-
ated with longer incarceration sentences among transferred juveniles.3
Discussion and Conclusion
In light of the profound changes to the landscape of juvenile justice that have
occurred over the past several decades, a small but growing body of litera-
ture has been dedicated to exploring disparities between adult defendants
and juveniles who have been transferred to the criminal court. The findings
from this literature have been far from conclusive, with a few studies docu-
menting a “juvenile penalty” but some recent analyses suggesting that juve-
niles are punished similarly to or more leniently than adults (Johnson &
Kurlychek, 2012; Jordan, 2014; Jordan & McNeal, 2016; Kurlychek &
Johnson, 2010). In addition, some of the literature on mode of conviction
has revealed that the effects of defendants’ extralegal characteristics on sen-
tence severity may be either positively or negatively conditioned by a trial
conviction (Johnson, 2003; Ulmer & Bradley, 2006; Ulmer et al., 2010).
Although two prior studies (i.e., Kurlychek & Johnson, 2004; Steiner, 2009)
578 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
considered the possibility that juvenile status may be moderated by mode of
conviction, these studies reported contradictory findings.
The present research draws on data from Florida circuit courts to explore
the direct and interactive effects of juvenile status on adult court sentencing
outcomes, and it makes several advancements over prior work. First, in con-
trast with the prior two studies that explored the interaction of interest, our
analyses include adult defendants of all ages instead of only young adults.
Second, these data include a larger subsample of transferred juveniles than
has heretofore been used in any of the six prior studies exploring sentencing
of juveniles relative to adults. In addition, because a large number of trial
cases are analyzed, we are able to make reliable assessments of the moderat-
ing effects of mode of conviction. Finally, this study is the first to explore the
conditional effects of mode of conviction on juvenile status using data that
extend past 1999. Several key findings emerged from our analysis.
Our first finding is that juvenile status exerts different effects on sentence
severity depending on the sentencing outcome under study. With regard to the
decision to incarcerate, we find that, net of the control variables, juveniles are
less likely than adults of all ages to receive this punishment. This result cor-
responds to one of the findings of Johnson and Kurlychek (2012), who
reported that juveniles in Maryland are more likely than young adults to
receive downward sentencing guideline departures. Our finding is also analo-
gous to that of Jordan and McNeal (2016), who observed that transferred
youth were less likely than adults of all age groups to receive sentences to jail.
Theoretically, this finding may suggest that, in court actors’ evaluations of
transferred youth, juvenile status may act as a mitigating factor in sentencing
by informing the focal concerns of blameworthiness and practical constraints
and consequences. For example, transferred youth offenders might be per-
ceived as less criminally culpable and less receptive to the deterrent effects of
punishment than adults due to their limited maturity and moral understanding
(Cauffman & Steinberg, 2000; Zimring, 2000). Indeed, court actors may view
the offenses of transferred juveniles not as serious criminal acts but as youth-
ful indiscretions that should be punished more leniently. In addition, it is pos-
sible that judges might know that sentencing a youth offender to incarceration
in an adult facility could pose ethical and practical challenges for the correc-
tions system, especially in light of the JJDPA “sight and sound” exception for
transfers. Because judges may perceive juveniles as less culpable, less deter-
rable, or unsuited for adult incarceration, they may be less likely to sentence
juvenile offenders to incarceration than adult defendants.
While we find a negative effect of juvenile status on the likelihood of
incarceration, our estimates of sentence length suggest that, among those
sentenced to incarceration, juveniles are given longer terms than adults. This
Lehmann et al. 579
finding is similar to those of Kurlychek and Johnson (2004, 2010) and
Jordan (2014), who likewise reported “juvenile penalties” in incarceration
sentence length. Overall, our observations correspond closely to those of
Jordan and McNeal (2016), who found that juveniles are given leniency in
the incarceration decision but severity in the sentence length decision. These
results suggest that, although judges may be disinclined to incarcerate trans-
ferred juveniles, once the decision to incarcerate has been made, transfers
are punished especially harshly. It is theoretically possible that the subset of
youth who have been identified by criminal court judges as deserving of
incarceration have been distinguished from both adults and other juveniles
as especially dangerous or threatening to the safety of the community.
Indeed, such youth might be perceived as “uniquely serious and intractable
offenders” (Johnson & Kurlychek, 2012, p. 532) and, as such, are given
lengthy incarceration terms.
Corresponding with our second research question, another key finding
that emerges from our study is that mode of conviction conditions the sen-
tencing of adults relative to transferred juveniles, such that the effects of
juvenile status are weaker among trial cases. Specifically, disparities between
adults and juveniles in the likelihood of incarceration are significantly smaller
among trial cases than plea cases, and the “juvenile penalty” in the sentence
length decision is likewise less pronounced for defendants convicted at trials.
Thus, although the directions of the multiplicative terms differ between the
two outcomes, the resulting influence on juvenile-adult sentencing disparities
is the same, such that juveniles and adults who have been convicted at trials
are sentenced more similarly than juveniles and adults who plea bargain. Put
differently, trials appear to minimize differences in sentence severity between
transferred juveniles and adults for both sentencing decisions.
There are several theoretical explanations for these observations. For
instance, while judges might consider juvenility to be a mitigating consider-
ation in the decision to incarcerate, a trial may present prosecutors with the
opportunity to “dirty up” juvenile defendants by bringing to light or drama-
tizing “bad facts” about their characters, their roles in the offenses, or their
prior adjudications, and these differential emphases may affect judges’ evalu-
ations of these defendants at sentencing (Ulmer, 1997; Ulmer & Bradley,
2006). This process might be especially consequential for juveniles because
transfers are atypical defendants in many respects (Johnson & Kurlychek,
2012), and judges’ perceptions about their blameworthiness or dangerous-
ness might be easily affected by “ugly facts” presented about them at trial. It
is also possible that, because trials can be highly publicized events, judges
may be more inclined to sentence juveniles to incarceration to avoid media or
public criticism (Ulmer et al., 2010). Such a decision might be guided by a
580 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
desire to appear tough on crime or an eagerness to more closely adhere to the
prescribed sentencing guidelines.
In contexts where juvenility may generally aggravate sentencing out-
comes—such as incarceration sentence length decisions—trials might enable
defense attorneys to evoke judicial sympathy by bringing up juvenile defen-
dants’ reduced culpability or criminal responsibility. By highlighting a juve-
nile’s age as a mitigating factor or by bringing up extenuating circumstances
in the process of a trial, defense attorneys might increase the likelihood that
judges will take these considerations into account at the sentencing stage and
give juvenile defendants shorter incarceration terms, thereby reducing the
disparity between adult and juvenile outcomes.
While the present study provides some insight into the sentencing of trans-
ferred juveniles as well as the conditional effects of trial convictions, it is
limited in several respects. First, like nearly all sentencing research, much of
the variation in sentence severity remains unaccounted for in our regression
models, suggesting that they are affected by unmeasured variable bias
(Baumer, 2013). Cases involving transferred juveniles may well be system-
atically different from those involving adult defendants, so it is important to
control for as many of these unmeasured differences as possible. While our
highly inclusive measure of case seriousness is helpful in this regard, some
important variables that could not be controlled for include court caseload
pressure (Johnson et al., 2008; Wooldredge, 1989), mode of transfer (Zane,
2017), and offenders’ socioeconomic status, demeanor, mental health, and
personal circumstances. We also have no information about prosecutorial
charging decisions. In addition, the theoretically expected mediating mecha-
nisms that are logically connected to defendants’ case characteristics and
their sentencing outcomes, such as the sentencing philosophies of judges
(Albonetti, 1991; Farrell & Holmes, 1991), could not be accounted for in our
models. The perceptions and subjective assessments of judges are especially
important for this study as the relevant theoretical mechanisms indicate that
defendants’ perceived maturity, culpability, and risk of reoffending are key
considerations in the sentencing of transferred juveniles relative to adults.
Unfortunately, no measures of these concepts are available. Thus, the results
of this study must be interpreted with a certain degree of caution.
A second limitation is that our analyses are restricted to criminal court
defendants who were prosecuted and sentenced in Florida. It is unclear if our
findings would remain unchanged if we were to repeat this study using data
from other research contexts, such as states like South Carolina that do not
have sentencing guidelines. In addition, Florida’s rate of juvenile transfer is
approximately five times the national average (Griffin et al., 2011), which
might suggest that the culture of the Florida justice system is especially
Lehmann et al. 581
punitive toward juvenile offenders. However, because our results correspond
in some respects with those that use national data and data from other juris-
dictions (Johnson & Kurlychek, 2012; Jordan, 2014; Jordan & McNeal,
2016), it is less likely that our conclusions are inordinately threatened by
issues of external validity. Nonetheless, additional research that explores the
sentencing of transferred youth and the conditional effects of mode of con-
viction using data from other contexts is needed.
In conclusion, as the transfer of juvenile offenders to the adult court
remains a notable feature of modern criminal justice practice (Griffin
et al., 2011; Sickmund & Puzzanchera, 2014), further research is needed
on the adult court sentencing of transferred juveniles. Despite recent
empirical developments, it remains unclear under what circumstances
juvenile status in the adult court may be understood by court actors as an
aggravating or a mitigating factor in punishment. In the present study,
juvenile status appears to be an aggravating factor in the decision to incar-
cerate but a mitigating factor in sentence length decisions, and these
aggravating and mitigating influences appear to be diminished by the
conditioning effect of a trial conviction. It seems warranted that addi-
tional connections should be made between juvenile status and other legal
and extralegal variables that may moderate its effect on sentencing. As the
current study demonstrates, the effects of juvenility on punishment are
complex, and researchers studying this defendant population should
explore other factors that may influence the criminal sentences that trans-
ferred juveniles receive. In addition, addressing these disparities should
be a priority for policy makers, especially in light of the evidence that
transfer to the adult court may have several negative consequences for
youth (Augustyn & Loughran, 2017; Zane et al., 2016).
The findings from this study also have important implications for legal
ethics. In contrast with several prior studies (e.g., Johnson, 2003; Ulmer &
Bradley, 2006), these analyses indicate that extralegal disparities in sen-
tencing are more pronounced among plea cases than among trial cases, thus
suggesting that potentially disparate applications of justice are apparently
mitigated by the trial process. While the results herein show that trial penal-
ties in sentencing remain for all defendants, the evidence also implies that
the presence of public and media scrutiny associated with a trial—as well
as the opportunities afforded to defense attorneys to portray defendants in
more sympathetic different ways—might help ensure that comparable
defendants are treated more similarly. While further research on this topic
is clearly needed, the findings from this study might suggest that efforts to
confront disparities in sentencing should include a careful focus on the plea
582 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research,
authorship, and/or publication of this article.
The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publi-
cation of this article.
1. Due to data limitations, we could not distinguish between negotiated pleas ver-
sus nonnegotiated pleas and jury trials versus bench trials in our measure of
mode of conviction.
2. One concern with models predicting sentence length is that, because the sub-
sample of defendants who are sentenced to prison is nonrandom, the estimates
may be affected by sample selection bias (Bushway, Johnson, & Slocum, 2007).
One method used to correct for this bias is the Heckman correction procedure.
However, Bushway and colleagues (2007) note that, in the absence of useful
exclusion restrictions, the correction term is often highly collinear with the pre-
dictors of sentence length, thus introducing bias into the model. We examined
models both with and without the correction and found that the inclusion of the
hazard term, indeed, resulted in problematic levels of collinearity. Therefore, fol-
lowing the example of prior research (Johnson, Ulmer, & Kramer, 2008; Ulmer,
Eisenstein, & Johnson, 2010), we report only the uncorrected sentence length
models with the understanding that the estimates are likely affected to some
extent by sample selection bias.
3. Supplemental models using multinomial logistic regression were conducted
in which the effects of juvenility were estimated using a trichotomous out-
come of a sentence to jail or prison relative to supervision. The jail versus
supervision comparison revealed substantively similar findings to those pre-
sented in the binary logistic model, with adults of all ages significantly more
likely than juveniles to be sentenced to jail. In the prison versus supervi-
sion comparison, the same pattern of findings emerges with two exceptions.
Adults ages 18 to 20 were significantly less likely to receive sentences to
prison than juveniles, and adults ages 60+ were also less likely than juveniles
to receive this sentence. In the interaction model, due to the substantially
reduced statistical power as a result of separating jail and prison sentences,
no significant moderating effect of mode of conviction was observed in
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586 Crime & Delinquency 64(5)
Peter S. Lehmann is a doctoral student in the College of Criminology and Criminal
Justice at Florida State University. His research interests include juvenile justice and
delinquency, disparities in sentencing, and public opinion on crime and criminal jus-
tice policy. His recent work has appeared in Justice Quarterly, Journal of Criminal
Justice, Youth Violence and Juvenile Justice, and other outlets.
Ted Chiricos is William Julius Wilson Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice
at Florida State University. His current research interests focus on the effects of race,
immigration, age, and social threat on justice outcomes as well as the various factors
contributing to the extraordinary punitiveness of American culture. He is also collabo-
rating on the examination of threat-related factors that may contribute to intimate
William D. Bales is a professor at Florida State University’s College of Criminology
and Criminal Justice. He focuses on a range of crime and policy topics, including the
effectiveness of electronic monitoring and tests of labeling theory. He has published
in Criminology, Criminology and Public Policy, and other crime and policy journals.