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Race, Juvenile Transfer, and Sentencing Preferences: Findings from a Randomized Experiment

In light of the expansion of punitive “get tough” policies for juvenile offenders, some researchers have uncovered evidence that juveniles who are waived to the adult court receive more severe sanctions than retained juveniles. Theoretically, the transfer status of delinquents may serve as a cognitive heuristic in criminal justice system (CJS) actors’ “focal concern” judgments. Understood through this framework, transfer status may signify to CJS workers, and especially Whites, that a juvenile offender is especially dangerous or blameworthy, thereby justifying harsher punishments. To examine these relationships, two experimental vignettes were embedded in a national survey of CJS workers in which the transfer status of the offender was randomized. Analyses reveal that respondents did not prefer harsher sentences for the transferred violent male delinquent, but they did recommend significantly harsher sentences for the transferred nonviolent female delinquent. White respondents, however, were especially punitive in their sentencing preferences for the transferred violent male delinquent. The findings are partially consistent with the theoretical expectation that transfer status functions as a heuristic in CJS actors’ assessments of juvenile offenders. The results also suggest that White CJS workers may racially typify violent youth who have been transferred to adult court.