Juvenile cases in New Jersey differ greatly from cases involving adults. The goal of the juvenile justice system, the rights which juvenile defendants have, the procedures which police and courts must follow, the facilities in which juveniles are detained, the roles of the defense lawyer and the judge, and many other aspects of juvenile jurisprudence are all significantly different from the adult criminal system.
Even the Juvenile Court is separate. Juvenile cases are handled in the Family Division, not the Criminal Division, of Superior Court. In a growing number of counties, such as Essex, Family Court matters are heard in a separate building from the criminal courts.
The goal of Juvenile Court is to rehabilitate. By definition, the adult penal system contains an element of punishment. The juvenile system, on the other hand, is designed to rehabilitate the youth, rather than punish the criminal act. Thus, the case will not be called “State vs. Jane Doe”, but “The State of New Jersey in the Interest of Jane Doe, a juvenile.”
A juvenile case begins with a determination of probable cause. When a person under the age of 18 is accused of committing an offense, the matter is brought to a court’s attention. This is usually the municipal court, and the matter is brought usually, although not always, by the police. Then, a judge or court official such as the Court Administrator or Clerk must determine that there is probable cause to think that the juvenile has been delinquent, s/he can be taken into custody.
Juvenile charges are brought in the county where the juvenile resides, rather than where the offense occurred. In appropriate cases, a judge will grant the juvenile’s lawyer’s motion to transfer the case to the county of the offense. While the New Jersey’s twenty-one counties should strive for uniformity in the handling of juvenile cases, this is not always achieved.
Juveniles are not arrested; they are detained. They are, according to law, taken in into custody for their own protection. Parents or guardians must be notified without delay. Juveniles may not be detained in the same facility, or even the same police car, as adult suspects. They will be given a “detention hearing” by the morning following their detention to determine whether it will be safe to return the juvenile to the custody of the parent or guardian while the matter is pending.
While in custody, a juvenile is brought before a judge at least once every three weeks, to review the need for continued detention. Sometimes juveniles are released to home, but subject to home confinement, electronic monitoring, curfews, continued employment or school, or other conditions imposed by the court.
A form called a “5A Notice” is sent to the parent(s) or guardian early in the case. This is the Family Court’s summons for the parent(s) and juvenile to appear and also to file an application for a Public Defender. The form is a bit confusing, and the various counties treat the 5A hearings differently.
A juvenile must have an attorney, and a Public Defender will be appointed for a juvenile whose family cannot afford to retain a “private” lawyer. Public defenders are lawyers who are available to low-income families at little or no cost. They are usually experienced in juvenile law and are familiar with the courts. Many of them are excellent lawyers. In most NJ counties defendants and their parent(s) or guardian(s) must appear at the “5A Hearing,” even if they intend to hire a lawyer, as the state or the court may require “intake” information or procedures such as fingerprinting.
Juveniles have no right to a trial by jury; juvenile trials are heard by a judge without a jury. The rules of trial in juvenile court are different from adult court, and at sentencing, the judge has many options that are unavailable to adult defendants. Most juvenile cases are settled, however without a trial.
New Jersey’s juvenile justice system provides many diverse options for rehabilitating the youth. The system strives to understand each defendant and to treat each as an individual. In counties such as Essex and Union, where there are several judges sitting in the Juvenile part, repeat offenders are usually scheduled to appear before the same judge, often with the same prosecutor. In appropriate cases, there are programs and plea bargains that allow for dismissals and downgrades, intensive supervision, probation, job training, substance abuse remediation, pyromania counseling, anger management, and much more. An experienced juvenile attorney can often help fashion a resolution that makes sense.
Not all juveniles are tried in juvenile court. Some are “waived up” to adult court where they receive adult court treatment and are exposed to adult penalties. Among the factors a court will consider in determining whether to waive a juvenile up to adult court are the gravity of the crime, the juvenile’s age, history, gang affiliation, and the involvement of “adult” instrumentalities such as firearms, motor vehicles, and sexual activity. Offenders convicted as juveniles are not sent to prison, but to places with names like The Training School for Boys, and custodial juvenile sentences do not exceed five years. Cases that are waived up expose the youth to penalties ranging to twenty years in prison, and even more.
Juvenile records, that is, records of the juvenile offense, “disappear” once the juvenile turns eighteen. That is not exactly true – the records remain available for certain purposes, but may not generally be disclosed. Subject to some very rare exceptions, no employers, schools or government officials may inquire about a juvenile record. Juvenile records may be expunged, later on, in most cases. Consult an attorney.
Experienced New Jersey juvenile lawyers know that the juvenile justice system favors the youth who make efforts to improve, and who shows promise for a law-abiding future. Supportive families, success in school, part-time or full-time employment, involvement organized community, religious or athletic activities all suggest that the youth has a significant likelihood of rehabilitation. Juveniles with these advantages benefit most from the non-penal philosophy of the juvenile system.
Families seeking a private attorney should look for an attorney experienced in juvenile court matters. The family can help the case by appearing in court, by trying to keep the juvenile out of trouble, and by providing alternative activities and moral support to the juvenile. The juvenile’s attorney should work towards a resolution that is realistic and rehabilitative, one that has a chance of succeeding. Sensitive handling of juvenile criminal matters may be the difference that saves an imperiled juvenile.