Parents are often shocked and overwhelmed when they receive a phone call from school or the police claiming that their child has committed a criminal offense. While parents hope that they will never receive such a call, they occur with surprising frequency. In fact, over the last five years an average of 65,092 juvenile delinquency complaints were filed annually throughout the state, with approximately 3,500 of them originating each year from Mercer County alone. Although juvenile courts are generally more responsive than adult criminal courts to the unique rehabilitative needs of minors, the juvenile justice system is just as complex and can present equally serious direct and collateral consequences.
Juvenile delinquency is defined as an act committed by a person under the age of 18 which, if committed by an adult, would constitute a felony, misdemeanor, or a violation of any other penal statute ordinance or regulation. Unlike adult criminal matters, where the goal of the court is to punish the offender, juvenile courts emphasize rehabilitation and accountability for delinquent conduct. Through early intervention, and the provision of applicable services, juvenile courts seek to redirect youthful offenders in a positive direction so that they will avoid future problems, as well as the onerous consequences that flow from adult convictions.
Keeping with the goal of rehabilitation, the juvenile justice system recognizes that extenuating circumstances often contribute to the youthful lapses in judgment that result in delinquent conduct. These circumstances often include family problems, peer pressure, learning issues, substance abuse and sexual abuse. In such cases, the court attempts to fashion dispositions which address the problems that underlie the minor’s delinquent behavior. This is usually accomplished by a non-custodial probationary sentence, which is conditioned on the minor’s participation in, and successful completion of, an array of services that include counseling, drug treatment and community service.
While rehabilitation is the ultimate goal, dispositions of juvenile matters frequently require that youthful offenders be incarcerated in juvenile detention centers. Juveniles are subject to incarceration both before and after their charges are resolved. Unlike adults, juveniles do not have a right to bail. As a result, it is not uncommon for a minor to be held in detention pending the outcome of his or her charges. Juvenile courts have the ability to impose many of the same penalties available in adult criminal court, upon resolution of the more serious charges. Sentences can include a term of incarceration in a youth detention center for up to four years. In some cases, the charges can even be referred to adult criminal court where the minor will be subject to the same lengthy prison sentences as adult offenders.
Significantly, court proceedings and records relating to juvenile matters have been made confidential by statute. However, that protection is not absolute. Juvenile records are available to victims, schools and certain other governmental agencies. In addition, anyone can gain access to juvenile records if they convince a court that they have a legitimate need for them. Finally, if your child applies for certain types of military, government or law enforcement services, he or she may also be asked to disclose his or her juvenile record. Thus, like an adult conviction, juvenile adjudications carry potential collateral consequences that can follow a child for years. In order to assure that a juvenile adjudication does not ruin an otherwise bright future, parents are advised to seek an expungement of records relating to their child’s arrest at their earliest opportunity.
The direct and collateral consequences that can flow from juvenile delinquency are no less serious than those faced by adults who find themselves in criminal court. Therefore, in order to protect their children to the fullest extent possible, parents need to arm themselves with the information necessary to successfully navigate the juvenile justice system. At Szaferman Lakind our attorneys, who include former state and county prosecutors, have what it takes to safeguard your child’s future.
Robert E. Lytle is a partner at Szaferman, Lakind, Blumstein & Blader, P.C., 101 Grovers Mill Road, Lawrenceville, NJ 08648. He concentrates in criminal law and general litigation. He can be reached at email@example.com