To increase protections for New Jersey youth during criminal proceedings, the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee advanced a measure 7-0-1 on Thursday that would extend automatic eligibility for legal representation by the Office of the Public Defender to juveniles under 18 years of age.
The bill (A-2396) would apply to those under 18 arrested or charged with an indictable offense or act of delinquency. Under current law, persons under 21 are eligible for representation by a public defender upon the court’s review of the financial resources of parents or guardians.
Sponsors of the bill issued the following statements:
Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Bergen, Passaic): “These kids need someone to advocate for them, but affordability and the fear of what a lawyer might cost often leads them and their family to forgo legal representation. Eliminating the constraints to appointing counsel would ensure the constitutional right remains intact.”
Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-Essex, Passaic): “Black and Brown people are incarcerated at higher rates than any other groups. It often comes down to a lack of proper legal representation and bias in the legal system. This legislation takes a step to address these increasing rates of incarceration by ensuring all families are able to benefit from legal counsel regardless of affordability. At the end of the day, no what matter the charge, this concerns children. Granting access to counsel as quickly and as early as possible is the best chance for fair, equitable outcomes.”
The bill now goes to the Speaker for further review.