Sumter & Mainor Bill to Make Changes to NJ’s Juvenile Justice System to Encourage Rehabilitation Passes Assembly

(TRENTON) – Legislation sponsored by Assembly Democrats Shavonda Sumter and Charles Mainor to make changes to the state’s juvenile justice system to facilitate the rehabilitation of juvenile offenders and help break the cycle of recidivism cleared the full Assembly, 53-24-1, on Thursday.

The bill (A-4299) would make various changes to the state’s juvenile justice system. Specifically, the bill would revamp the state law governing waiver of juveniles to adult criminal court; require due process before a juvenile can be transferred to an adult facility; and limit the use of solitary confinement or room restriction as it is known within the system to discipline incarcerated juveniles.

“Once they have served their sentences, these young people will go back to their communities where they will either work to better themselves and their families, or return to their troublesome ways. Where they serve their sentences can make the difference,” said Sumter (D-Bergen/Passaic). “Sending a child to an adult prison population has no rehabilitative benefits at all. By mending the current system, we can help break the cycle of recidivism and give hope to those who never had it.”

“For many young people who end up in the juvenile system, prison becomes a revolving door. In order to keep them from becoming hardened criminals, reforms must be made,” said Mainor (D-Hudson). “This is not about making prison a pleasant experience, but placing them where they will have the best chance at rehabilitation. Prisons are expensive. Rehabilitating juvenile offenders to help them become productive members of society makes sense not only morally, but financially.”

Under the current juvenile waiver statute, a juvenile’s case may be transferred to adult criminal court under certain circumstances. Currently, a prosecutor has 30 days from the receipt of the complaint to file a waiver motion unless good cause is shown to extend this time period.

If a prosecutor motions to waive the case of a juvenile who is 16 or older and establishes the requisite probable cause that the juvenile committed a serious offense, the juvenile will automatically be waived to adult criminal court.

This is referred to as a “prosecutorial discretionary waiver.” Juveniles who are 14 or 15 years old and juveniles who are 16 or older who are charged with less serious offenses will be waived to adult criminal court, if the state establishes that the nature of the charge against the juvenile or the juvenile’s prior record is sufficiently serious that waiver is in the public interest, and if the juvenile fails to establish during an “amenability hearing” that the probability of rehabilitation outweighs the reasons for waiver. This is called a “judicial discretionary waiver.”

The bill would repeal the current juvenile waiver statute and replaces it with a streamlined process for determining whether a juvenile case should be transferred to an adult criminal court. Under the bill, only juveniles who are 15 years of age and older and who are charged with certain serious offenses as enumerated in the bill would be eligible for waiver. The bill would also increase the time given to a prosecutor to file a waiver motion from 30 days to 60 days after receiving the complaint.

Under the bill, the waiver motion must be accompanied by a written statement from the prosecutor detailing the facts used in assessing the waiver factors, along with an explanation as to how evaluation of those facts support waiver for each particular juvenile. The court would have to determine whether the prosecution considered the waiver factors. If the court is convinced the prosecutor abused his or her discretion in considering those factors, the court may deny the motion.

The bill would also provide that a juvenile whose case was waived would serve his or her sentence in a juvenile facility rather than an adult facility. Specifically, the juvenile’s case would proceed in the adult criminal court as if the case originated there, including through sentencing, but there would be a presumption that the juvenile would serve a custodial sentence in a juvenile facility until the juvenile reaches the age of 21. Juveniles under 21 years of age may be required to serve the sentence in a state correctional facility if the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) finds the juvenile’s continued presence in the facility threatens the public safety, the safety of juvenile offenders, or the operations of the commission. Also, a juvenile may continue to serve a sentence in a juvenile facility after reaching the age of 21 in the discretion of the commission and if the juvenile consents.

Also under the bill, certain juvenile cases waived to an adult criminal court would be remanded to the juvenile court for sentencing, which is referred to as disposition under the juvenile code. Specifically, if a juvenile was not convicted of the offense on which the waiver was based, but was convicted of another offense, that offense would be deemed a juvenile adjudication and would be remanded to the juvenile court for a disposition, which may include incarceration. This way, the juvenile would be subject to penalties under the juvenile code, instead of the adult criminal code.

In addition to revamping the juvenile waiver statute, the bill would establish a presumption that a juvenile whose case has been waived must be detained in a juvenile facility pending resolution of the case and pending sentencing.
The bill would further provide that if the prosecutor and defense consent, at any point in the proceedings subsequent to the decision granting waiver, the court may remand the case to juvenile court if it appears the interests of the public and the best interests of the juvenile requires access to programs or procedures uniquely available to that court and the interests of the public are no longer served by waiver to the adult criminal court.

Lastly, the bill would limit the use of solitary confinement, or what is referred to in current JJC regulations as “room restriction,” in state juvenile correctional facilities and juvenile detention centers. The bill would prohibit a juvenile from being subject to room restriction, unless the juvenile poses an immediate and substantial risk of harm to others or to the security of the facility, and all other less-restrictive options have been exhausted. The bill would require that the use of room restriction be documented and aggregate data be made available to the public under the state’s Open Public Records Act. The JJC would also be required to publish the aggregate data on its website.

The bill was released by the Assembly Appropriations Committee on June 15.