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.
The Juvenile Trial Unit has made significant changes starting in 2015. First, there has been an increased use of technology when communicating with local police departments and the Youth House, reducing the time for obtaining investigative reports and other documents.
Second, community involvement has increased for the disposition of non-serious matters involving first-time offenders, including the use community-based programs such as the Juvenile Conference Committees (JCCs), a six- to nine-member citizen volunteer panel appointed by the Family Division Judge that hears and decides matters involving juveniles.
Another 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 criminal justice system.
Third, Assistant Prosecutors and detectives have developed a closer partnership with local police departments, especially with serious matters such as carjacking, armed robbery, shootings, burglary, weapons and assaults.
The Juvenile staff also worked closely with the Special Prosecution Unit, which among its other duties, investigates social media evidence. This area of investigation has grown significantly and is especially relevant in juvenile matters.
For more information on the juvenile justice system in Essex County, see Frequently Asked Questions.