Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Recent NJ Supreme Court decision assists juvenile defendants facing charges as adults

The New Jersey Supreme Court ruled this month in State in the Matter of Interest of V.A. et alia that prosecutors must meet a tougher test before they can try juveniles as adults, reversing an Appellate Court decision that reversed a trial court decision and permitted the State to waive prosecution in family court of several co-defendant juveniles who were over the age of 16, who had been involved in an aggravated assault incident. They had been facing charges as adults as a result. One of the most onerous factors in the particular case that was being heard was that the defendants would face up to incarceration for ten years if tried and convicted as juveniles while they could face up to forty-two years in prison as adults under the No-Early Release Act.

Under NJSA: 4A-26 prosecutors may waive prosecution of juveniles and permit them to be tried as adults. One of the protections that juveniles have been afforded when being tried as juveniles is the right to have rehabilitation evidence used in their behalf. However, upon being charged as adults, juveniles lose this right to have proof of rehabilitation being used as a mitigating factor.

The Attorney General identified seven factors that a prosecutor would have to use when requesting the waiver. These are: the nature of the offense; deterrence in preventing others from committing the same crime; the effect on co-defendants, namely that co-defendants cannot be treated unequally, where some are tried as adults and others as juveniles; prior record of the defendants; trial considerations; and the input of the victims. In this case, the victim of a vicious assault did support the over age 16 year defendants being tried as adults.

The trial judge held that the prosecutor did not meet the standards to waive the defendants into adult court, using a standard that the prosecutor had committed an act of patent and gross abuse of discretion, which is a very high standard.

The Appellate Court reversed the trial judge using the legislative intent that gave prosecutors the discretion regarding making determinations as to waiver. The Appellate Court took note of the Attorney General’s arguments that this trial judge had shown prejudice in other instances when prosecutors sought to have juvenile court matters remanded to adult court. Basically, the Appellate Court found that the trial judge had abused his discretion. However, it was noteworthy that the Appellate Court upheld the standard that the trial judge used in asserting that the standard to be applied must be a showing that the prosecutor committed an act of patent and gross abuse of discretion.

The main issue that the Supreme Court focused on was what standard should be applied by the court in reviewing a waiver by the prosecutor’s office. The Supreme Court held that, as applications to have juveniles tried as adults necessarily was an application to impose harsher penalties upon the defendants, the standard the court needed to determine was simply whether the prosecutor committed an abuse of discretion without having to show that it was a patent and gross abuse of discretion. The Supreme Court considered these applications to be different than the standard that, for instance, would be applied on arguments against denials of Pre-Trial Intervention, because those were arguments for reduced penalties not increased ones.

This gave the courts more power in holding the prosecutors’ feet to the fire in presenting evidence on all seven prongs of the guidelines before approving a waiver of prosecution. In addition to holding that defendants only need to show that the prosecution abused their discretion rather than having to show that they committed a patent and gross abuse of discretion, the Supreme Court also held that it was necessary that the prosecution adequately substantiate their arguments as to all seven prongs of the Attorney General’s Guidelines as to each defendant. For instance, in some instances, the prosecutors in this case simply used boiler plate language as to each defendant, while only introducing slight variations when describing the prior records of each individual. The Supreme Court also failed to present any cogent arguments with respect to how the waiver would act as a deterrent to others.

In a 3-2 decision, the Supreme Court held that prosecutors must explain why trying a juvenile as an adult would better deter that person, as well as others, from committing future crimes.

As reported in the Newark Star Ledger on September 12, 2012, “juvenile justice advocates hailed the decision as an acknowledgement of the negative consequences of putting young offenders in prison with adult criminals.” The advocated found that imprisoning young people as adults often aided inmaking them into permanent criminals unable to find jobs later in life. They were also more likely to commit suicide or be physically or sexually abused.

In response to the Supreme Court’s decision, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office was reported in the Star Ledger to have argued "the need to deter the juvenile(s) and others from engaging in this sort of activity is abundantly clear." The case was sent back by the Supreme Court to the trial court to permit the prosecutors to expand their arguments to justify trying the defendants as adults. According to the Star Ledger report the Middlesex County Prosecutor Bruce Kaplan said: "[E]ven under this new, increased level of court review, our previous statement of reasons pursuant to Attorney General guidelines was found sufficient in all other respects," Kaplan said.

While not a total victory for juvenile defendants, it does give trial courts more freedom in reviewing the requests being presented by zealous prosecutors in having juveniles tried as adults by inquiring whether they committed any abuse of their discretion.

Tony Van Zwaren, Esq.
Clifton, New Jersey

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