Understanding the Juvenile Judicial Process in New Jersey

If the offense is more serious, a complaint may be filed in the Family Court. But keep in mind these courts are structured to meet the special needs of young people: there are no juries and strict rules about quickly releasing minors to their parents.

Cases in Family Court are usually settled by plea-bargain and result in fines, community service, required attendance of counseling or a treatment program, probation, or detention in Juvenile Hall. Once again, these requirements are intended to rehabilitate the teenagers, not make them miserable.

Juvenile Delinquency Cases

The police will file a complaint of juvenile delinquency with the court. The clerk will give the complaint to the intake service, which then evaluates whether there is probable cause to believe that the juvenile has been delinquent.

Intake then recommends whether the complaint should be dismissed, diverted, or referred for court action. This decision is based on the seriousness of the offense, age of the minor, the minor’s history, the potential for rehabilitation, and the level of control the parents have over the child.

Less serious offenses from younger minors with no prior records are more likely to be dismissed or diverted. If diverted, then the juvenile will be referred to a juvenile conference committee or a juvenile-family intervention unit.

If the intake service recommends court action, then a summons will be issued to the juvenile and his parents and they will appear before the Family Court. Remember, most juvenile cases are settled by plea-bargain without need for a trial – the juvenile will plead guilty to some of the offenses, and in return, the prosecutor will request more lenient sentencing.

Jury Trial vs. Bench Trial in Juvenile Cases

In New Jersey, a juvenile does not face criminal conviction, but rather a juvenile adjudication of delinquency. Juveniles do not receive a trial by jury, but instead cases are decided by bench trial by the judge. The trial of a juvenile case is called an adjudication hearing; the judge hears the evidence and determines whether the teenager is delinquent. If the judge finds the child delinquent, then a dispositional hearing will be held to create a plan for rehabilitation.

The disposition plan may contain a variety of requirements, including but not limited to: counseling, fines community service, group home placement, and/or formal or informal probation. The length of the plan varies and may be for a few months or even perhaps a full year. In the more serious cases, the plan may include sending the juvenile to a detention center to serve their sentence.

How Important Is My Child’s Record When Facing Charges?

If your child has been arrested for a second, third, or other repeat offense, he/she could be facing stiff penalties. Although the justice system sees and treats juvenile and adult offenders fundamentally different from each other, repeat juvenile offenders and violent juvenile offenders can end up being charged as adults.

The prosecution takes a wide a variety of factors into consideration when decided what offenses to charge, or, even if a juvenile should be tried as an adult.

According to the Attorney General, in a memorandum outlining juvenile waiver guidelines (the procedure used in charging a juvenile as an adult), the prosecutor shall consider the juvenile’s prior record including:

  • The seriousness of any acts for which the juvenile has been adjudicated delinquent
  • Any offenses for which the juvenile has been waived and convicted as an adult
  • Any involvement of the juvenile with a gang
  • The history of the use of physical violence towards others and the extent to which the juvenile may present a substantial danger to others

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Resolving Juvenile Crime Charges

As former prosecutors, our attorneys understand how cases against juveniles are prosecuted. As defense attorneys, we are proud to work on behalf of juveniles charged with serious offenses, such as:

As a minor, you stand to lose a lot if convicted. You may suffer certain consequences in school, as well as challenges when applying for university or for jobs. We understand the gravity of these consequences, and we want to alleviate some of your burden by assuring you of our experience obtaining favorable outcomes in these types of cases.

Juvenile Offenders Tried as Adults

In cases involving juveniles aged 16 and older, prosecutors must show how being tried as an adult would help deter future offenses, as well as the possible maximum penalties the juvenile would face if convicted as an adult.

Even if new waiver laws put a greater burden on prosecutors to justify a transfer from family court to criminal court, this does not mean that if your child has been charged with a serious felony crime in New Jersey, an overzealous prosecutor could still seek to have your child tried as an adult.

Although prosecutors must now meet a tougher standard to try juveniles as adults, it is still important to have a New Jersey criminal defense lawyer in order to ensure the best defense possible against waivers of transfer.

The Waiver of Transfer Procedure

New Jersey recognizes that juveniles are different from adults; that adolescents may not be capable of making good decisions, are more likely to act impulsively, and in some cases, may be easier to rehabilitate without subjecting them to adult penalties and prisons.

The penalties and procedures in juvenile court differ somewhat from those in adult court. But even for juvenile offenders protected by the juvenile courts, there are some exceptions. Laws that allow a juvenile to be transferred to adult court are called “transfer” laws.

In certain cases, a juvenile may be transferred to adult criminal court through a waiver procedure. This process is most likely to be initiated by the prosecutor, but a judge can also initiate transfer proceedings. In order for the transfer to be facilitated, a judge must waive the protections that the juvenile court offers to juvenile offenders.

Waiver of Transfer Influencing Factors

In New Jersey, the juvenile must be at least 16 years of age to be eligible for waiver to adult court. Factors that may be considered when deciding whether to try a juvenile as an adult include:

  • Prior record of the offender
  • Likelihood of conviction and potential need for a grand jury investigation
  • If the death of a victim occurred during the offense
  • The nature and circumstances of the act
  • The role of the juvenile therein
  • If there was grave and serious harm inflicted on the victim or the community
  • The potential for serious harm to the victim or the community
  • The use or possession of a weapon during the offense

Prosecutors vs. Juvenile Defense Advocates

Prosecutors argue that the possibility of being charged as an adult serves as a strong deterrent for juveniles to commit future crimes.

However, juvenile advocates argue that unnecessarily charging young people as adults creates its own set of problems once a young offender is released.

Juveniles that are tried and convicted as adults are subjected to adult penalties including prison time and a permanent criminal record. Juvenile offenders incarcerated in adult institutions are more likely to be subjected to violent crimes committed by adult inmates, including psychological, physical, and sexual abuse. Juveniles sent to adult prisons are also more likely to commit suicide.

Once they are released, a juvenile with a permanent criminal record may find it more difficult to get scholarships, find housing, or gainful employment.

Possible Punishments for Juveniles Found Delinquent

The court could send the teenager home with a warning, though in most cases the juvenile is placed on probation where they report to a probation officer regularly. A judge could also establish a curfew for the child, order them to attend counseling, submit to random drug testing, perform community service, maintain steady employment, and/or pay fines or compensation to the victim.

These requirements are very commonly determined in a plea agreement where the juvenile pleads guilty to some offenses in return for a more lenient sentence. Stricter requirements include electronic monitoring, house arrest, or placement in a youth program or special treatment school.

Harsher Penalties and Consequences for More Serious Offenses

In more serious cases, the juvenile may be taken from the parents and placed in a residential care facility or foster care. Finally, the child could be sent away to a juvenile correctional facility similar to adult incarceration but only with other juveniles.

In some cases the court will stay a sentence or place a jail term on hold so that if the juvenile violates probation then the judge will send the juvenile to jail. Jail time at a juvenile correctional facility robs a teen of years they should get to enjoy learning in school, playing sports, and spending time with friends and family.

The New Jersey Justice system favors rehabilitation over incarceration, but when dealing with serious offenses there are still harsh consequences that can ruin a teen’s life. Having an experienced and knowledgeable attorney is vital to ensuring your child receives the best and most effective defense possible.