Mistakes that we make as kids shouldn’t effect the rest of our lives. This is why minors are treated differently in the eyes of the law than those who may commit the same illegal acts as an adult. It is to be assumed that an adult should know better. So, if your child was caught shoplifting at the Monmouth Mall in Eatontown or the Ocean County Mall in Toms River they would be charged as a juvenile delinquency (N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-20) as long as they are under 18 years old.
Juvenile delinquency (N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-20) is any unlawful act that is committed by those who are below the age 18; that if the same action was committed by an adult it would be constituted as a crime, a disorderly persons offense, a petty disorderly persons offense, or a violation of any other penal statute, ordinance or regulation. If a group of friends get arrested for stealing a car and one person in the car is 16 and the other is 19 the 16 year old would be charged as a juvenile delinquent while their 19 year old friend would be charged as an adult in New Jersey Superior Court.
Juvenile delinquency cases are governed by and are heard in the Superior Court of New Jersey, Chancery Division, Family Part. In juvenile matters, the court’s goals are rehabilitation and accountability. For this reason, a juvenile’s case is different from their adult counterparts from the start. For example, in New Jersey, when a person under the age of 18 years old is found to have committed a crime, they are taken into custody rather than arrested. Further, whereas as an adult may be convicted of a crime, a juvenile is adjudicated delinquent and any charges that are proved are not to impose a criminal classification. In addition, it is very difficult for people outside of the court system to obtain court records relating to a juvenile. Juvenile court records are not available to the general public and unauthorized disclosure of a juvenile’s court records is a disorderly persons offense. In fact, under New Jersey law, juvenile records are available only to certain judicial, law enforcement, and governmental agencies as specified in N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-60. Any other agency or person can only have access to the records by making a motion before a judge for good cause.
What is the Juvenile Criminal Procedure?
First, if a police officer has found a juvenile committing a crime, the police officer, either based on personal knowledge or information supplied by others will sign a juvenile complaint. Then a decision is made by the Family Court staff as to whether the complaint will be diverted or be heard by a juvenile hearing officer or a judge. The decision as to whether to divert or refer to court is based on the severity of the offense, age of the juvenile and prior record. It is possible that the reviewers of the complaint will determine that the charge being brought against the juvenile is not serious enough to require going before a judge, so the matter would be sent to an alternative program such as a Juvenile Conference Committee for potential resolution.
If the charge is deemed serious enough to require going before a judge, the juvenile may be taken into custody and held in a juvenile facility. This decision is based on the nature of the offense, the need to protect society, a past record of adjudications of delinquency, a recent failure to appear at court proceedings, or failure to remain where placed by the court or court intake service.
Parents of a juvenile are not allowed to post bail if the juvenile is detained. Per N.J.S.A. 2A: 4A-60, bail is not available for juveniles. However, during each step of the court process the Judge will make a decision as to whether or not the juvenile can be released back into the community.
An initial detention hearing must be held no later than the morning following the juvenile’s placement in the detention facility. At the hearing, the first decision about releasing a juvenile from custody is made by a Judge. If the juvenile’s detention is continued after the hearing, the court will schedule a Probable Cause hearing, which will be held within two days. Probable cause means the prosecutor must present enough evidence to satisfy the Judge that the offense did happen and that there is reason to believe that the juvenile was the one who committed this offense. The Judge will then decide whether to continue holding the juvenile in detention or if it is appropriate to release them into an alternative to detention programs, such as in-home detention. If the juvenile stays in detention, the judge must hold detention review hearings at least every 21 days.
It is important to note that in some cases a juvenile may waive his rights and request the matter be tried in the Criminal Court. Anyone over 14 who is charged with a 1st or 2nd degree offense is subject to the prosecutor filing a motion to have the charges moved to the Criminal Court. Before this is approved a Family Court Judge will have to conduct a hearing and agree to the motion.
If a juvenile is found by a judge to have committed the offense for which he or she was charged, there are certain dispositions that may be issued in order to rehabilitate the juvenile. Those include:
• adjourned disposition;
• community service;
• release to parent or guardian;
• required support services;
• required parental involvement;
• residential mental health and/or substance abuse and alcohol treatment;
• transfer of custody;
• secure confinement/incarceration;
• suspension of driver’s license; and
• work, outdoor, academic, and/or vocational programs.
If a juvenile is found by a judge to have committed the offense for which he or she was charged, juveniles face the same potential penalties as adult offenders. However, the maximum term of jail time or imprisonment is often less than placed on adult offenders. For example, a juvenile being tried for felony murder will face maximum jail time of 10 years while an adult offender, charged with the same offense would face life in prison. Further, adults usually face at 20 years for first degree crimes whereas juveniles face a maximum prison term of four years if found guilty of committing a first degree crime. Juveniles convicted of second and third degree crimes face three and two-year penalties, respectively, while adults face prison terms of 10 and five years.