(TRENTON) – To increase protections for New Jersey youth during criminal proceedings, Governor Phil Murphy signed into law a measure that would extend automatic eligibility for legal representation by the Office of the Public Defender to juveniles under 18 years of age.
The law (formerly bill A-2396) will apply to those under 18 arrested or charged with an indictable offense or act of delinquency. Under previous law, persons under 21 were eligible for representation by a public defender upon the court’s review of the financial resources of parents or guardians.
Sponsors of the law 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 law 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 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.”
Assemblywoman Carol Murphy (D-Burlington): “Individuals under the age of 18 are charged with wrongdoings and face punishments similar to adults, yet they have not had the same access to legal counsel. It is often very difficult to afford lawyer fees and many youths face the court system without any guidance. This law is a necessary step toward ensuring that those going through trial have the proper access to legal representation.”