By raising the minimum waiver age, narrowing the offenses that a young person can be charged for as an adult, creating a reverse waiver procedure, establishing the presumption that a waived and convicted youth will serve his sentence in a juvenile facility, and creating other safeguards for youth in the justice system, New Jersey has taken a small, but important step in protecting our young people from the trauma of the adult criminal justice system. The bill, S2003, was proposed by Senator Pou and signed into law by Governor Christie on August 10.
Originally, youth arrested and charged in New Jersey could be waived into adult court using different criteria, depending on their age and circumstances of the offense. While the waiver age has only increased by one year, from 14 to 15, prosecutors now only have a limited list of offenses to waive. Prosecutors must also clearly state, in writing, the facts that support the waiver application. Courts can deny those waiver motions if they are clearly convinced that the prosecutor abused their discretion in considering waiver factors such as special education status, involvement in child welfare, mental health disorders, and the nature and circumstances of the alleged offense(s).
The list of offenses that a youth can be waived for has also been narrowed. No longer will a non-violent offense such as a computer crime be used to waive a 16-year-old. Adding more protection for youth, if they’re acquitted on their waived charge but convicted for something else, they will be sentenced in a juvenile court where they will only be subject to the penalties under the juvenile code. In addition, there is now the presumption that, unless good cause is shown, detention is to be served in a juvenile facility, as well as any sentencing up to age 21.
While not a true reverse waiver, it is now possible to have the youth’s case sent back to family court, which is a mechanism that unfortunately has not existed in the state. Not only will S2003 decrease the flow from juvenile to adult court, but it will also allow us the ability to reverse that flow. If there is consent from the prosecutor and defense, the court may send the case back to juvenile court if the interests of the public and the best interests of the youth require access to programs or procedures uniquely available to family court, and the interests of the public are no longer served by waiver. Ideally, consent from both parties should not be required, but a form of reverse waiver is absolutely better than no reverse waiver at all. This is another way that the law has created new safeguards for youth to avoid being tried and convicted in adult criminal court.
S2003 is not without its faults. For example, the waiver age is still too low. It sets a higher age limit for those disposed/sentenced to juvenile facilities, but it’s still relatively low given what we know about adolescent brain development. Prosecutors still have too much discretion and do not have to face a high standard of proof in regards to waivers. While some additional burdens have been added on the prosecutor, it still remains the duty of the youth to provide information on things such as their mental health history.
These new, complicated safeguards could be avoided by following other states which have eliminated their waiver system all-together. We need to be reminded that we are still dealing with children who are still in their formative years, who don’t always act out rationally, and who rely on adults to guide them into adulthood. Guiding them into prisons does more harm than good, to the youth, their families, their communities and society-at-large.