New Jersey Criminal Defense Attorney Blog Covering New Jersey and Federal Criminal Law and Procedure

Articles Posted in Juvenile Justice

50 years ago last week, the United States Supreme Court decided In re Gault, which guaranteed juvenile defendants many of the same due process rights held by adult criminal defendants.  For the first time, a Court held that juvenile matters are, in fact, adversarial criminal proceedings, and that juvenile criminal defendants therefore have a right to a defense attorney, procedural protections, and the opportunity to present their version of the underlying facts in an open hearing.

The facts of Gault are relatively simple.  Gault, age 15, was accused of making obscene telephone calls to a neighbor and, as a result, was sentenced to a six-year custodial term in a violent youth facility.  Significantly, an adult charged with a similar offense would have been fined $50.00, and sentenced to up to two month in jail.  Gault was also on probation at the time of this incident for being in the company of another teen who stole someone’s purse, although he was not accused of any wrongdoing in connection with that incident.  There was no trial in the case involving the telephone call.  In fact, there is no transcript or any record of what occurred during his hearings in juvenile court.  Gault purportedly confessed to making the calls with a friend.  His parents were not present in court, or even informed of the charges prior to his alleged confession.

The underlying issue in Gault was the extent to which states could dispense with due process rights in juvenile criminal matters in the interest of doing what was believed to be in the juvenile’s best interests.  However, courts around the country were grappling with this problem prior to Gault.  There are cases dating back to the 1800’s that raised the same question.  Further, just a few months before Gault, the New Jersey Supreme Court ruled that a juvenile may not be entitled to the full panoply of constitutional rights, but must still receive the basic elements of due process and fair treatment. Continue reading

I have never believed that most lawyers or judges take juvenile delinquency cases seriously.  Many of them frequently refer to these matters as “kiddie crime”.  Indeed, it is not unusual for a judge who has sat in an adult criminal trial court to feel offended as a result of being transferred to a juvenile court.

Attorneys and judges who have such views of the juvenile justice system have, however, failed to see its importance.  One of the system’s most significant functions is to prevent juvenile offenders from becoming adult offenders.  It is generally believed that a juvenile who is charged with acts of delinquency is more susceptible to rehabilitation because they are young, and the probability of successful rehabilitation decreases as the juvenile moves toward, and eventually attains, adulthood.  Thus, successfully retraining and rehabilitating juvenile offenders while they are still relatively young reduces the likelihood that they will incur criminal charges as an adult.  The theory is simple – offending behavior that is corrected at an early stage in life will remain corrected.

Nevertheless, there are juveniles who commit the most serious crimes regardless of their age and relative inexperience.  These crimes include murder, armed robbery and sex offenses.  Juvenile offenders who engage is such conduct are typically “waived up” to the adult court, where they are subjected to the adult criminal process like any other adult criminal defendant.  Must we somehow balance the fact that they were juveniles when they committed their crimes against the severity of their offenses? Continue reading

Earlier this week, I was in the Chancery Division, Family Part for a hearing on one of my juvenile delinquency matters.  While waiting to be called, I listened to the colloquy in the cases being heard before mine.  Virtually every case included some discussion involving texting or social media.  In the matter that was heard just before mine, the juvenile’s attorney asked the court to release her client – a recently arrested middle school student – on electronic monitoring.  The application was denied because just prior to arrest, the juvenile posted a photograph of himself holding a handgun on social media.  The prosecutor’s office checked virtually all of the popular social media outlets just before the hearing to see if the juvenile came up in any context, discovered the photograph and, of course, brought it to the court’s attention.

One of the issues in my juvenile case concerned certain text messages discovered on my client’s cell phone.  When the police arrested my client, they coaxed him into executing a consent-to-search form for his cell phone.  Upon searching the phone, they discovered text messages that, according to the state, implicated my client in the underlying offense.

There is a disturbing pattern here.  In the first case, the prosecutor’s office simply knew to check all of the popular social media outlets prior to going to court.  It seems that this has become part of their standard procedure in preparing for juvenile proceedings.  In my case, the police guessed – correctly – that there was a very high likelihood that my client’s cell phone would contain damaging text messages.  Continue reading

Neither the New Jersey Code of Juvenile Justice nor the New Jersey Court Rules expressly address discovery in juvenile matters.  The absence of express guidance in the statute or court rules recently led to decisions from the Appellate Division and New Jersey Supreme Court that broadened a juvenile’s right to discovery, at least in a relatively narrow – but very serious – class of cases.

Two high school students – CW and DW – got into a fistfight.  Someone who was present at the fight had a handgun in his waistband.  NH, one of DW’s friends who was also present at the fight, grabbed the gun and shot CW four times.  One of the shots was to the back of CW’s head.  NH subsequently admitted to possessing and firing the handgun, but claimed that he shot at the ground.  At least a portion of the incident was caught on video, and several witnesses provided statements to the police that implicated NH.

The State charged NH in a juvenile complaint with crimes that, if committed by an adult, would constitute knowing and purposeful murder and unlawful possession of a weapon.  The State also sought to waive jurisdiction of the case from the Family Division, Juvenile Part, to the adult criminal part of the Law Division.  In connection with this motion, the State submitted a statement of reasons, provided the juvenile with limited discovery, and represented that it had no exculpatory evidence. Continue reading

In 1963, just two weeks after his 17th birthday, Henry Montgomery killed Charles Hunt, a Louisiana deputy sheriff.  Montgomery was originally sentenced to die but, on retrial in 1970, received a mandatory sentence of life without parole.  Montgomery is now 69 years of age and, by all accounts, became a model member of the prison community over the last 46 years.

In 2012, a divided United States Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that the Eighth Amendment forbids mandatory life without parole sentences for juvenile murderers.  Montgomery, who received such a sentence, sought release from prison based upon, among other things, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Miller.  However, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused to apply Miller retroactively and, in 2014, denied Montgomery’s petition.  In fact, Louisiana was one of several states that refused to apply Miller retroactively.  As a result, juveniles in these states whose cases were no longer subject to direct review could not challenge their mandatory life without parole sentences, notwithstanding the holding in Miller.  Montgomery’s attorneys subsequently sought review in the US Supreme Court.

The Court heard oral argument in Montgomery v. Louisiana on October 13, 2015, and issued its decision on January 25, 2016.  The majority opinion addressed two issues.  First, the Court discussed whether its prior ruling in Miller was a substantive rule of law which should be applied retroactively.  The Court also considered whether the rule could be applied in a case like Montgomery’s which was on collateral, as opposed to direct, review. Continue reading

New York’s Rikers Island is the second largest jail in the United States, housing between 11,000 and 12,500 inmates at a given time.  It is also one of the most violent jails in the country.

For many years, experts have acknowledged that placement in solitary confinement can negatively impact an inmate’s mental health.  Until recently, juvenile inmates at Rikers were routinely placed in solitary confinement even for minor offense including talking back, simple horseplay, possession of unauthorized amounts of clothing or art supplies, or ignoring a direct order.  Some of these juveniles sat in solitary confinement – locked alone in a cell for 23 hours a day – for up to 90 days.  Other juveniles sat in solitary confinement for up to one or even two years.

In August 2014, the United States Attorney’s Office in Manhattan issued a report that was highly critical of the New York City Correction Department’s treatment of teenage inmates at Rikers.  It noted that the atmosphere at the jail was permeated with a “deep-seated culture of violence”, and that the use of solitary confinement for juveniles (also known as “punitive segregation”) was “excessive and inappropriate”.  Forty percent of the teenage inmates were subjected to the use of force by guards at least once, and required medical assistance more than 450 times.  Teenage inmates were also instructed regularly to not report their injuries to other guards or the jail’s infirmary.  US Attorney Preet Bharara noted that “[t]here is a pattern and practice of conduct at Rikers that violates the constitutional rights of adolescent inmates … We are talking about a culture problem and a systemic problem – not an individualized issue …” Continue reading