In June 2015, the New Jersey Legislature began debating a juvenile justice bill that would require defendants to be at least 15 years of age in order to be tried as adults. The current system allows juveniles of any age to be tried as an adult for extremely serious crimes such as murder and aggravated sexual assault. This has always been a controversial policy, since juveniles are technically children, who typically lack the maturity and decision making skills of an adult Hence, juveniles are usually tried in the family courts, which seeks to rehabilitate rather than punish whenever possible. Although incarceration is mandatory for serious offenses, the majority of juvenile offenders are given lighter penalties such as house arrest and community service.
However, not all juveniles can be easily rehabilitated, and allowing them to be released back into society could place others in danger. A teenager who has committed a heinous murder, for example, would get no more than 20 years in prison if he or she were found guilty in the family courts. As an adult, he or she would face a life sentence, which may be an appropriate punishment depending on the degree of the crime and the individual's propensity towards reoffending. Still, the decision to try a juvenile as an adult is not one that is made lightly by the New Jersey juvenile system.
In fact, New Jersey may be moving towards what would be the toughest age restriction laws for juvenile delinquents in the entire nation. Currently, 22 other states also allow for juveniles of any age to be tried as adults for high level offenses, but the newly proposed bill seeks to prevent defendants under the age of 15 from being tried as adults under any circumstances. In addition, the bill seeks to keep juvenile offenders from being transferred to the adult prison system until they are 21 years of age. It also caps the practice of segregation at no more than 8 consecutive hours per day, for no more than 2 to 5 consecutive days, depending on the child's age.
Proponents of the bill argue that children who enter the adult justice system too early receive virtually no rehabilitation, and will have to deal with a criminal record for the rest of their lives. Detractors of the bill, however, point out that young offenders who have committed extremely disturbing crimes cannot be allowed to return back to society after a few years in a juvenile facility. These are just some of the dilemmas that must be resolved by the legislature before presenting the bill to Governor Christie. Regardless of what happens with this bill, it's clear that the juvenile justice system is drastically different, and often much more complex than the adult criminal system. If you are a juvenile defendant, or are the parent or guardian of a juvenile defendant, please find out about your rights and legal options from the family law attorneys of Villani & DeLuca, P.C.