The Juvenile Justice Unit of the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office prosecutes juveniles for acts of delinquency that include murder and other offenses that if committed by an adult would be indictable offenses. The goals of the Unit are to ensure public safety through swift and certain punishment of the violent and repetitive delinquent; to reduce recidivism through accountability and recommendations for structured supervision; and to divert minor offenders away from delinquency, thereby reducing the need for further court action. Ultimately, the goal is to stop recidivism and break the escalating and intensifying cycle of delinquency.
The Code of Juvenile Justice (N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-23) defines delinquency to include the commission of an act by an individual under age 18 which if committed by an adult would constitute a crime; a disorderly persons offense or petty disorderly persons offense; or the violation of any other penal statute, ordinance or regulation, excluding motor vehicle, curfew, and smoking in public. (These cases are heard in municipal court.)
Ultimately, the Juvenile Justice Unit is responsible for the prosecution or other disposition of all formal complaints charging acts of juvenile delinquency in Essex County. Eight assistant prosecutors assigned to four juvenile courts handle individual court calendars at various stages in the prosecution process – from the detention stage through weekly call calendar (plea conference), waiver applications, hearings, trial and ultimate disposition. The Juvenile Justice Unit uses a “vertical prosecution” model. Simply put, an Assistant Prosecutor is responsible for a case from start to finish. The Juvenile Justice Unit prepares, investigates, screens and litigates all delinquency cases that are heard before the court. This “vertical” approach was also adopted several years ago by the regular (Adult) Trial Section. Vertical prosecution helps to move juvenile cases through the court very rapidly. The Juvenile Justice Unit also performs all of the screening functions performed for adult cases by the Initial Screening Unit. It argues the State’s “bail”/ detention hearing recommendations, comparable to adult proceedings in the CJP Court; and also performs trial preparation and litigation functions.
In addition to prosecuting cases in court, the Unit provides daily legal advice to the twenty-two Juvenile Bureaus within Essex County and offers legal support to the Juvenile Referee Program and other court sponsored initiatives such as the “Alliance for Compliance” (involving intensified supervision of juveniles on probation). The unit also works closely with the local schools that require legal or investigative assistance. Members of the Unit also volunteer to conduct training sessions within the community regarding the consequences of delinquency and gang involvement.
In 2016, the Unit handled over 2,000 referred cases, ranging in severity from disorderly-persons offenses to homicides. Two judges handle the case load in Essex County, one on a full-time basis and one who handles juvenile and other matters. The Assistant Prosecutors conduct all necessary investigative and legal issues associated with the cases including plea negotiations, motions, trials, and sentencing.
The Juvenile Trial Unit has made significant changes in 2016. First, we have increased our technological communication with the local police departments and the Youth House for quicker availability of investigative reports and other documents with our office. We are currently in the process of working with local police departments to scan complaints to our clerk’s office to make it more efficient for the local police and our office.
Second, we have increased community involvement for the disposition of non-serious matters for first-time offenders including more station house adjustments, JCC, and other community based programs. One successful program is the Newark Youth Court, a program run from the Newark Municipal Court. Juveniles who are first-time offenders are referred there to participate and hopefully be deterred from future involvement in the system. Third, our Assistant Prosecutors and detectives have developed a closer partnership with local police departments, especially with serious matters such as carjacking, armed robbery, burglary, weapons and assaults. We work in conjunction with them and consult with them on many ongoing investigations, assist with obtaining search warrants, and charging decisions.
Our Unit’s staff also works closely with our Forensic Analysis & Cyber Technical Services Unit which, among its other duties, investigates social media evidence connected to prosecutions. This area of investigation has grown significantly and continues to grow. It is especially relevant in juvenile matters. The partnership we have with this Unit has made, and continues to make, our prosecutions better. Moving forward, we intend to continue to increase our collaboration with that Unit and local police departments.
For more information on the juvenile justice system in Essex County, see Frequently Asked Questions.