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New Jersey Moves to Keep Kids Under 15 From Adult Court

Age restriction would be toughest in the nation.

Like many other state legislatures, New Jersey’s is debating a juvenile-justice bill that would raise the age of adult criminal responsibility for some crimes, limit solitary confinement for teenagers, and house more juvenile offenders in facilities focused on rehabilitation, instead of in adult prisons.

But unlike legislation in other states, New Jersey’s bill would prevent the cases of teenagers under 15 from being transferred to adult court under any circumstances, even murder. That would make New Jersey unique. According to the National Center for Juvenile Justice, 22 states allow children of any age to be waived into adult court for serious crimes. Of those states with strict limitations on charging kids as adults, none goes as far as the New Jersey bill.

Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Mexico are among the states where the general age of adult criminal responsibility is 18. Yet each state has exceptions built into its laws. In Massachusetts, those as young as 14 can be charged with murder as adults. In Connecticut, 14-year-olds can be prosecuted as adults for murder and some categories of manslaughter, arson, and sexual assault. In New Mexico, a defendant must be at least 15 to be transferred to adult court on a murder charge, but those as young as 14 can face adult-length sentences in juvenile court for a number of violent felonies.

In Washington, D.C., a person generally has to be 15 to face adult prosecution for a felony. But younger children can be transferred to adult court if they commit a weapons offense within 1,000 feet of a school, playground, or other place where children congregate.

The New Jersey bill has no exceptions for juvenile offenders 14 and under — they will all be charged and prosecuted in family court. Juveniles who are 15, 16, and 17 could still be transferred to adult court on the most serious felony charges, but in most cases, only after a hearing in which a juvenile court judge considers whether the teenager can benefit from the rehabilitation the juvenile court system provides — a legal barrier that does not exist under current law. Once a juvenile is in adult court, a judge would have the ability to send the case back to juvenile court if new facts emerge, such as evidence that the juvenile was along for the ride with a group of peers who committed the crime.

The bill was drafted by State Senator Nellie Pou, a Democrat, whose office said she was not available for an interview. The legislation would also end the practice of transferring teenagers under 18 from juvenile facilities to adult prisons, and allow some prisoners to remain in juvenile custody until age 21. In addition, it would cap juvenile “room segregation,” a type of solitary confinement, at eight consecutive waking hours per day and two consecutive days for 15-year-olds, three consecutive days for 16- and 17-year-olds, and five consecutive days for 18 year olds. The practice would be limited to those prisoners apt to harm others or themselves.

Assemblywoman Maria Rodriguez-Gregg, the sole Republican co-sponsor of the lower house’s version of the bill, says she supports the legislation because of its focus on keeping most juveniles out of adult courts and facilities. A large body of research shows that teenagers sent to adult court or incarcerated alongside adults are more likely to commit new crimes after their release, regardless of their original offense. “The system as it is creates criminals,” Rodriguez-Gregg said. “Psychologically, it causes more harm than good. It doesn’t reduce recidivism and it’s very costly.”

But Rodriguez-Gregg emphasized that the bill could still be amended. “It’s a debate,” she said of the lack of a transfer mechanism to adult court for teenagers 14 and under.

Democrats have already made key compromises on the plan. They originally hoped to make 16, not 15, the minimum age for adult prosecution. They also agreed to make it easier for prosecutors to request extended terms of incarceration for repeat juvenile offenders, whether they are sentenced in adult or family court. For the more liberal supporters of the legislation, the lack of a transfer mechanism for 14-year-olds is a feature, not a bug. “I love it,” said Freeholder Wayne Richardson, a Democratic county lawmaker representing Newark and several suburbs. He said he believed family courts could be as well-equipped as criminal courts to handle serious crimes. “A family court judge should be trained just as well as an adult court judge.”

Mary Coogan is assistant director of the non-profit group Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which helped push for the bill. “It creates a presumption that juveniles who do any type of custodial term should do it in a juvenile facility,” she said. “The true mission of the juvenile system is rehabilitation and giving youth the skills they need to become productive adults. Those services that are available in the juvenile system are not available in the adult system.”

The ban on sending kids under 15 to adult court may be controversial, but it applies to only a tiny group of cases. Violent crimes by children 14 and under are rare. According to data compiled by the National Center for Juvenile Justice, in 2013, only about two percent of the juveniles waived from family to adult court in all the states were 14 or under. New Jersey transferred only two 14-year-olds from juvenile to adult court in 2009, the last year for which data was available. In 2014, 14-year-old Jerome Ford of Atlantic City was charged with the murder of a seventh grader. Prosecutors sought to waive him into adult court — an option that would no longer be available if the current law passes.

Lee Forrester, a former family court judge in Trenton and a supporter of the proposed legislation, says the changes would put the focus on rehabilitation without necessarily shortening sentence lengths for juveniles convicted of the most violent crimes. According to state data, of 118 juveniles transferred to adult court in 2009, about half received a sentence that was less than or equal to the maximum sentence they could have received in a juvenile court. Of the nine first-degree murder cases transferred to adult court, all nine received sentences of 20 years or less. Currently, 20 years is also the maximum juvenile court penalty for murder.

“In the 21 plus years that I sat as a juvenile court judge, and before that as a defense attorney who also specialized in juvenile cases for another 17 years, I would get calls from the judges in criminal court who had these cases saying, ‘Why is this kid here?’,” Forrester recalled. “I’d say, ‘Well, he was waived.’ .... There was not a great deal of discretion” — because the legal standard for moving a teenager to adult court was probable cause to believe the defendant had committed the crime, not whether the juvenile and state could benefit from his or her rehabilitation.

The bill has passed the State Senate and on June 15 passed out of the Assembly Appropriations Committee along party lines, with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed. The legislative session is scheduled to end next week, which means time is running short for the full legislature to vote on the measure. (Already this year, major juvenile-justice reform packages have failed in Texas and New York.) The state Attorney General’s office withdrew initial opposition and is now taking no position on the bill, while the state Administrative Office of the Courts supports it.

A spokesman in Gov. Chris Christie’s office said there would be no comment on the legislation before it reaches the governor’s desk. But there is evidence that Christie is among those Republicans who are increasingly open to criminal justice reforms. Last year, he signed a bail measure that makes it easier for poor defendants to be released from jail while awaiting trial.

Rodriguez-Gregg, the Republican assemblywoman, said, “I’m optimistic this is something the governor would sign.”