When Can Teens Be Tried as Adults?

By Brett Snider, Esq. on March 21, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

When can teenagers be tried as adults?

Teens are often responsible for serious crimes, and in many cases they can face the same punishments as adults.

The decision to try a teen as an adult varies by state, but generally each state considers the following factors:

1. How Serious Is the Alleged Crime?

Serious crimes committed by teens can mandate transferring their cases to adult criminal court. This transfer is called a juvenile waiver, and it typically won't occur unless a serious crime has been committed.

For example, in Texas, a child who may have otherwise been tried in juvenile court may be tried as an adult for any felony offense so long as there is:

  • Probable cause to believe the child committed the offense, and
  • The juvenile court believes that the seriousness of the crime or the child's background requires adult criminal proceedings.

Capital crime charges like first degree murder often make a teen eligible to be tried as an adult, but many states limit even these cases by the age of the child.

2. Minimum, Maximum Age Limits.

For most states, minors may be tried as adults unless they are younger than a certain age. The majority of states will not allow a child who's 13 or younger to be tried as an adult.

In California, for example, the minimum age in most cases for a transfer from juvenile to adult criminal court is 14. Teens 14 years or older are not automatically tried as adults in California unless they commit certain heinous crimes.

Other states have a lower maximum age for children to be tried in juvenile court. New York has notably tried most 16- and 17-year-olds as adults for all crimes, even for minor offenses like shoplifting. The New York Daily News reports that New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has plans to raise this age limit to allow more teens to be tried in juvenile court, but the issue is far from settled.

3. Judicial or Prosecutorial Discretion.

Under many states' laws, a juvenile court judge must decide whether a case should be transferred to criminal court. In addition to a child's age and the crime's severity, a judge may consider the circumstances of the accused act and the child's home life.

A prosecutor may also have the discretion to either pursue or decline to try a teen as an adult, much in the way they can drop charges against adults.

Editor's Note, March 15, 2016: This post was first published in March 2014. It has since been updated.

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