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.
JUVENILE CRIME: In 2014, the Juvenile Trial Unit handled 2,305 cases filed in the Essex Vicinage Family Division Court. Of this number 898 cases were litigated and adjudicated delinquent; 641 cases were diverted to behavioral/mental health programs seeking to help and/or rehabilitate the juvenile. These cases ranged from petty disorderly persons offenses to offenses that, if the juvenile were an adult, would be indictable. (Offenses such as robbery, homicide, carjacking, criminal restraint, possession of firearms, narcotics possession and distribution, auto theft, assault, sexual offenses, bias crimes, thefts/burglary, terroristic threats, harassment and criminal mischief were handled by this Unit.) In addition the juvenile trial unit handled 230 violations of probation; 598 cases re-opened following an earlier unsuccessful diversion from the court and 328 cases transferred from another county.
This year also saw the Juvenile Trial Unit conduct 13 bench trials following unsuccessful attempts to resolve the cases. Eleven juveniles were adjudicated delinquent and two were adjudicated not delinquent after a review of the evidence by the Family Court.
In 2014, sixty-one juvenile waivers were filed with an additional 35 motions that were pending from 2013, totaling 96 motions in year 2014. Of those cases, 20 were waived to the Criminal Division and 49 motions being withdrawn. Three motions were denied. While the overall number of offenses committed by juveniles has decreased, waiver filings have increased due to the nature of the offenses committed by juveniles—namely armed robberies, carjackings, aggravated assaults with firearms and homicides. The withdrawal of motions often gave the juvenile the option to remain in the juvenile justice system, opting for a sentence to the juvenile correction facility Jamesburg Training School for Boys.
COMMUNITY OUTREACH & PROACTIVE PREVENTION: The Juvenile Justice Unit seeks to be proactive in the justice system. For example, the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office participated in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) Statewide Steering Committee. The JDAI Steering Committee was convened by the Juvenile Justice Commission to create a Risk Screening Tool to be used by intake officers throughout New Jersey to determine whether a juvenile charged with an offense should be detained, or if not, what detention alternatives should the juvenile be placed into pending disposition of the matter. A Risk Screening Tool has been developed by a subcommittee of the JDAI state steering committee and was approved for piloting by the Supreme Court in 2008. Essex County is one of five pilot counties implementing the Risk Screening Tool.
In December 2008, the JDAI State Steering Committee’s name was changed to the New Jersey Council on Juvenile Justice System Improvement (NJCJJSI). This committee is a collaboration of juvenile justice partners including the Juvenile Justice Commission, Administrative Office of the Courts and the Judiciary whose mission is to institutionalize the core strategies of JDAI to examine juvenile justice in New Jersey systematically and to promote strategies that improve outcomes from arrest through adjudication and disposition. In 2009 the State of New Jersey became a JDAI Model Site for the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The Essex County Prosecutor’s Office plays an active and vital role in juvenile justice reform in the State of New Jersey as a member of the NJCJJSI and the JDAI Model Site Team.
The Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor of the Juvenile Justice Section, along with members of the Community Justice Program, Gang Intelligence Unit, and legal and investigation staff from other Office units help provide training for law enforcement, educators, parents and community organizations in the recognition of youth at risk of gang involvement, and to assist in the identification of gangs active in Essex County. These efforts at the county level are in conjunction with initiatives implemented by municipal police departments to identify and monitor youth gang activity within their respective communities.
For more information on the juvenile justice system in Essex County, see Frequently Asked Questions.