Legislation introduced Monday would restrict judicial review of prosecutors’ decisions to try juvenile offenders aged 16 or older as adults.
A bill, A-3388, aims at upending a Sept. 12 state Supreme Court ruling that allowed review under a liberal “abuse of discretion” standard.
The ruling, State in the Interest of V.A., A-9/19/20, was a departure from existing case law. For a decade earlier, courts had used the “patent and gross abuse” standard applied by the Appellate Division in State ex rel. R.C., 351 N.J. Super. 248 (2002).
R.C. came two years after the Legislature amended the applicable statute, N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26, to bar offenders 16 and older from arguing that the likelihood of rehabilitation by age 19 outweighs the reasons for prosecution as an adult.
The high court hadn’t addressed the issue until it agreed to hear Interest of V.A., where three 16-year-olds had allegedly beaten and robbed a man as he was walking on St. Georges Avenue in Woodbridge Township in 2009.
The Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office filed a motion under the statute, which requires waiver of juvenile jurisdiction and transfer to the Criminal Part where probable cause is established that the juvenile committed one of a list of serious offenses.
Because the purported offenders were at least 16, they couldn’t contest the motion.
Nonetheless, Superior Court Judge Roger Daley denied the state’s motion, holding the waiver a patent and gross abuse of discretion and finding prosecutors failed to give a good reason for the transfer.
An appeals court reversed and remanded for waiver, upbraiding Daley for his aversion to the statute.
But the Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, overruled R.C. and applied the less-deferential “abuse of discretion” standard used in reviewing prosecutors’ decisions to seek mandatory extended-term sentencing, waive a mandatory parole-ineligibility term and forfeit public employment.
Waiver is more akin to those circumstances because, unlike conferral of pretrial intervention, they involve imposition of harsher terms rather than a benefit, said Justice Jaynee LaVecchia, joined by Chief Justice Stuart Rabner and Justice Barry Albin.
In opposing waiver, a juvenile must prove abuse of discretion by clear and convincing evidence, they added.
The dissenters, Justices Ann Patterson and Helen Hoens, said R.C. was consistent with the Legislature’s intent, in passing the 2000 waiver statute amendment, to give primary authority to prosecutors.
The sponsor, Assemblyman Gregory McGuckin, R-Ocean, says he read the opinion and thought the majority got it wrong.
“Clearly it seemed to me that this was to be a prosecutor’s decision,” says McGuckin, a partner at Dasti, Murphy, McGuckin, Ulaky, Cherkos & Connors in Forked River, where he handles land use and other matters.
The 2000 amendment made clear that prosecutors were entitled to strong deference, McGuckin says, citing gang activity among teenagers then and now.
“That problem hasn’t gone away, and it’s only getting worse,” McGuckin says. “We shouldn’t make it harder to prosecute these individuals.”
McGuckin adds that he will begin seeking co-sponsors.
The measure was referred to the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee, but no hearing is scheduled. There is no corresponding Senate measure.
Assemblyman Peter Barnes III, D-Middlesex, hadn’t reviewed A-3388 before Wednesday but says it’s likely facing an uphill battle.
“I don’t think it would be well-received, not by the Democrats. I can’t speak for the Republicans,” says Barnes, majority whip and an Iselin solo.
“I think sometimes the prosecutors’ offices have too much discretion,” says Barnes, adding that young offenders are better served in family court. “Also, any time you seek to overturn a Supreme Court decision, that’s going to be a heavy lift.”
Barnes, who chairs the Assembly Judiciary Committee, would give the bill a hearing if it were referred to him next, though that isn’t likely, he says.
State Attorney General spokesman Peter Aseltine declines comment on the legislation, though his office, as an amicus in Interest of V.A., argued for the “patent and gross abuse” standard.
On the other side, the American Civil Liberties Union-NJ, the Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers of New Jersey and about 30 other amici pushed for the majority’s position.
“Certainly the court’s decision was well-reasoned and consistent with both the developmental research and the larger scheme of juvenile justice,” says their counsel, Laura Cohen of Rutgers Law School-Newark.
“The standard that they announced in the V.A. ruling doesn’t upend the waiver law,” she says. “All that it does is create a framework for courts.”
Cohen says the 2000 amendment was passed to cut down on waiver hearings and alleviate backlog, and there’s nothing to suggest that the more stringent review standard would affect juvenile gang activity.