What Determines Being Tried as a Juvenile or an Adult in New Jersey?
It is not uncommon for teenagers to act impulsively, often without considering potential consequences. Their impulsivity has a logical explanation—it is simply a matter of the way their brains work. In fact, research shows that a person’s ability to think rationally does not finish developing until their mid-20s.
Considering this information, New Jersey’s legal system tends to handle minors accused of crimes differently from adults. As with any rule, though, exceptions do exist and there are circumstances under which minors may be tried as an adult.
If you’re responsible for a minor facing criminal charges that could lead to an adult trial, it’s vital to act quickly. An experienced criminal defense lawyer can help protect their future and minimize any potential punishment.
The purpose of the juvenile justice system vs. the purpose of the adult criminal justice system
The New Jersey criminal justice system handles adult criminal charges and juvenile charges differently—so much so that juvenile and adult cases are not even addressed by the same court.
The juvenile justice system
New Jersey’s family court system holds jurisdiction over juvenile cases. The court’s primary goal is to rehabilitate young people accused of crimes and support them in becoming responsible, law-abiding adults.
This court may facilitate this through measures such as:
- Community-based parole
- Crisis intervention
- Diversion programs
- Detainment in a secure juvenile detention facility
- Detainment in a secure care facility
- Family reunification programs
- Mandated individual and/or family therapy
- Residential community homes
- Vocational training
- Transitional services, such as special mentorship and employment opportunities
While the juvenile justice system is designed to hold young offenders accountable for their actions and protect the public, punishment is not the sole focus.
Juvenile cases are confidential. Rather than being “convicted” of any crime, juveniles are “adjudicated delinquent.” Generally, records of adjudication are sealed either when the disposition expires or when the juvenile turns 18, whichever comes later.
This protects minors from the lasting adverse effects that a criminal conviction might otherwise have on their lives, including college acceptance, employment, and even housing.
The adult criminal justice system
Adult criminal cases are overseen by New Jersey’s superior court system. Juveniles’ susceptibility to peer pressure and impulsivity may be accommodated by the family court system, but the superior court does not afford the same opportunities.
While some rehabilitative measures are taken, the focus is primarily on punishment. Thus, juveniles who are tried in adult courts are less likely to be able to access supportive services that may serve to discourage future criminal behavior. They may also experience the negative effects of a permanent criminal record on everything from college applications to obtaining bank loans.
Additionally, studies support that juveniles who are transferred to adult facilities are significantly more likely to experience adverse outcomes, such as assaults, sexual abuse, and suicidal thoughts.
Can juveniles be tried as adults in New Jersey?
In short, yes. While the legal system tends to be more lenient on young people, some juvenile cases are still tried in the superior court.
While juveniles aged 14 or older may request to have their case transferred, juvenile cases may be waived to adult court at the request of the prosecutor. Typically, this happens when a juvenile is accused of committing a crime that is particularly severe, violent, or flagrant.
Juvenile waiver to adult court in New Jersey
When a prosecutor or juvenile files a Waiver to Adult Court, the family court holds a hearing to determine whether there is sufficient cause for the juvenile to be tried as an adult. The decision to transfer the case rests with the judge, and an experienced criminal defense attorney can assert the most persuasive argument that results in the best interest of the juvenile.
If the family court does relinquish jurisdiction over a juvenile case to adult criminal court, the juvenile will be tried in adult court and subject to the same penalties as an adult criminal. If found guilty, the juvenile could be sentenced to serve time in either an adult or juvenile facility, depending on the judge’s discretion.
Considerations for charging a juvenile as an adult in New Jersey
When deciding whether to waive jurisdiction over juvenile cases, the family court judge should consider a variety of factors, including:
- The juvenile’s demeanor and conduct
- How old is the accused?
- Does the juvenile seem remorseful and open to rehabilitation?
- Does the juvenile have a history of criminal or delinquent activity?
- Does it seem likely the juvenile could be rehabilitated before the age of 19?
- What role did the juvenile play in the crime?
- Did the accused youth initiate and commit the crime alone, or were they potentially coerced into participating in criminal activity?
- The nature of the alleged crime
- Was anyone injured or killed in the course of the alleged crime?
- Were weapons involved?
- Was the crime particularly violent or egregious?
- Is conviction likely?
- Is there probable cause?
- Can the prosecutor meet the necessary burden of proof?
- Would trying the juvenile as an adult deter them from committing additional crimes? If so, how?
- Would trying the juvenile’s case in adult court deter other youth from committing similar crimes?
Per the law, the family court must waive jurisdiction if the prosecutor has demonstrated probable cause, the juvenile is at least 14 years old, AND any of the following are true:
- The charges the juvenile faces are violent, such as aggravated arson, aggravated assault, sexual assault or aggravated sexual assault, carjacking, drug-induced death, first-degree robbery, homicide, or kidnapping
- The charges involve brandishing a firearm or stealing a vehicle
- The juvenile has been accused of leading a narcotics trafficking ring or producing and/or distributing a controlled dangerous substance (CDS)
- The juvenile allegedly committed the crime willfully, violently, or aggressively
- The juvenile had previously been convicted of a violent crime
- The alleged crime was committed while the juvenile was serving a sentence in an adult correctional facility
Ways an attorney can help you
Whether the case will be heard in the superior court or the family court, juveniles have the right to be represented by an attorney when they are accused of breaking the law. An attorney can help with navigating the complex court system, including any procedures, rights, and laws that are relevant to a juvenile criminal case.
In addition to building a proactive defense against the charges, a criminal defense lawyer works with their client to decrease the chances a case is heard in adult court by demonstrating:
- Remorse for the crime
- Coercion by others, if the juvenile was not the initiator/ringleader of the crime
- The probable success of the rehabilitative services offered by the juvenile justice system
Please schedule a consultation with our criminal defense attorneys at Dughi, Hewit & Domalewski if you or a family member are facing charges under the juvenile justice system.
Serious consequences can be associated with juvenile offenses, including imprisonment or a permanent criminal record. If you are being tried in an adult court system, it is imperative that you have the support of a trusted attorney who can protect your rights and advocate for your highest interest.
Schedule your consultation today.