F.A.Q. – Juvenile Justice System

Q. What is delinquency?

A. The N.J. juvenile delinquency code defines juvenile delinquency as an act committed by someone under age 18 that would be a serious crime, a disorderly persons offense, a petty disorderly persons offense, or a violation of a municipal ordinance if committed by an adult. This includes a wide range of offenses, ranging from spray painting graffiti and shoplifting to armed robbery and aggravated assault. Delinquency cases are generally heard and decided in Family Court.

Q. What isn’t delinquency?

A. Motor vehicle offenses, boating offenses, and smoking in restricted public areas are not delinquency. These in municipal court, whether committed by juveniles or adults. Other juvenile problems, such as running away from home, truancy and serious conflicts with parental authority are not delinquency and are generally handled by Juvenile-Family Crisis Intervention Units. These cases may be petitioned to Family Court when such a Unit is unable to resolve the crisis without court intervention.

Q. Why are juveniles treated differently from adults?

A. The philosophy that led to the creation of a separate juvenile justice system in the early 20th Century is that the court can act in place of the juvenile’s parents. The primary goal was to rehabilitate the juvenile. The focus has changed over the years and today the juvenile justice system is also concerned with holding juveniles accountable for their actions and protecting public safety.

Q. When can a juvenile be tried as an adult?

A. When the juvenile commits a serious offense and it does not seem likely that he or she can be rehabilitated by age 19, that juvenile’s case may be “waived” (transferred) to the Superior Court Criminal Division for prosecution as an adult. This can be done at the request of the prosecutor only after hearing and approval by the Family Court. Once the Family Court waives jurisdiction, the case can be handled like any other adult case and is no longer part of the juvenile justice system. Waivers represent less than 1 of the cases handled by the juvenile courts. Waivers for more serious cases are automatic for 16 and 17-year-olds, once a judge determines that the State has established probable cause.

Q. What is Family Court?

A. The Family Division of Superior Court is much more than judges in courtrooms deciding cases. The family court handles all problems relating to family relationships, including child abuse, domestic violence, child support, custody, visitation, and divorce cases. For juvenile cases involving criminal actions, there are alternative ways to resolve less serious cases. These alternate ways are known as “diversion” and are subject to screening guidelines administered by court intake staff. Two forms of diversion are juvenile conference committees and intake service conferences, both of which seek to reach agreements with parents or guardians as to what actions that the juvenile must undertake, including an apology, restitution, and community service. If the case goes to a hearing and is decided by a judge, a range of disposition actions are available, including probation, transferal of custody of the minor, oversight by the NJ Department of Children and Families (Div. of Child Protection and Permanency), fines, restitution, community service, participation in treatment programs for substance abuse, placement in a residential facility, postponement or suspension of a drivers license, and incarceration.

Q. How do juvenile justice proceedings differ from adult proceedings?

A. Juveniles accused of delinquency are covered by confidentiality provisions, although delinquency information can be shared with victims or victims’ family members and with schools in limited instances. Most juvenile hearings are closed to the public and victims do not have a right to observe these hearings.

Q. Please explain the beginning of a juvenile case.

A. A case begins after the municipal police arrest a juvenile and draft a complaint alleging juvenile delinquency. When a juvenile is detained in the Youth House, the complaints and some of the police reports are lodged with the juvenile. Under the mandate, the case is scheduled before a judge within 24 hours. If, on the other hand, a juvenile is released to a parent, the police forward the complaints directly to the Clerk’s Office of the Superior Court.

Q. When does the Prosecutor’s Office become involved?

A. The Prosecutor’s Office becomes involved when there are serious charges and/or the juvenile becomes re-involved. In these cases, there are formal Court proceedings that resemble adult criminal proceedings. These cases are handled by the ECPO Juvenile Justice Unit.

Q. What Happens When a Juvenile Appears in Court?

A. In a formal proceeding, the juvenile can either plead guilty or request a trial. The vast majority of cases are resolved by guilty pleas. If a trial is required, it will be a trial before the juvenile judge alone without a jury. A major difference between the juvenile and adult systems is that the prosecutor does not make binding sentencing recommendations as part of a plea bargain. The judge has total discretion regarding the sentence imposed. The least punitive is an “Adjourned Disposition” where the juvenile can “earn” the dismissal of his/her charge by fulfilling certain conditions such as restitution, community service, counseling, or school attendance for a specified period. Probation is another potential disposition wherein the juvenile must report periodically to a probation officer and fulfill certain special conditions. Residential placements are another possibility. Here, the juvenile is taken away from home and placed in a residential facility designed to focus on specific problems such as drug or alcohol abuse.

Q. Can a Juvenile Be Incarcerated?

A. The judge may also impose a term of incarceration as the disposition. Relatively few juveniles are ever incarcerated but the number may increase, as legislative changes require jail terms for juveniles who commit certain offenses and continue to commit more serious offenses. Incarceration guidelines are as follows for juveniles:

– First Degree, 4 years maximum
– Second Degree, 3 years maximum
– Third Degree, 2 years maximum
– Fourth Degree, 1 year maximum

The juvenile justice system is more lenient and informal than many people realize. The basic philosophy of the juvenile justice system is the rehabilitation of the juvenile, not punishment.