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September 12, 2012

Split NJ Supreme Court adds teeth to standards and process for trying juves in adult court

As reported in this local article, headlined "Trying juveniles as adults will be become tougher, N.J. Supreme Court rules," a split state Supreme Court has a real interesting ruling about court review of prosecutorial power to try juveniles as adults (a decision which, in my view, should be viewed largely as a sentencing decision).  The opinion from the majority in State In the Interest of V.A., No. 068707 (Sept. 12, 2012) (available here), gets started this way:

In this appeal we review a decision by a county prosecutor to seek waiver of three juveniles, aged sixteen at the time of their offenses, to adult court for acts of delinquency that, as charged, were equivalent to aggravated assault, robbery, and second-degree conspiracy. A Family Part judge found probable cause that the juveniles committed the offenses but denied the waiver motion.  The Appellate Division reversed, concluding that the Family Part overstepped its bounds.  State ex rel. V.A., 420 N.J. Super. 302 (App. Div. 2011).  In this matter, we are called on chiefly to address the standard of review to be exercised by a court reviewing such motions for waiver.

In 2000, the Legislature eased the conditions of waiver for juveniles, aged sixteen and over, who are charged with certain serious offenses, as were the juveniles here.  See N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26(a), (e).  While a prosecutor’s decision to seek waiver of such juveniles is discretionary, the Legislature directed the Attorney General to issue guidelines for prosecutors to promote uniformity, thereby preventing arbitrary exercise of that discretionary authority.  N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-26(f); see State v. J.M., 182 N.J. 402, 419 (2005) (observing that guidelines advance legislative goal of uniformity through avoidance of arbitrariness and abuse of discretion).  Guidelines issued by the Attorney General identify the factors that prosecutors are to address in a statement of reasons to support such waiver decisions, see Attorney General’s Juvenile Waiver Guidelines (Mar. 14, 2000) (hereinafter Guidelines), and we require submission of the statement of reasons with a motion seeking waiver, J.M., supra, 182 N.J. at 419.

In a court’s review of waiver motions carrying such serious consequences for the juvenile who is waived up to adult proceedings, we hold that the abuse of discretion standard applies.  The abuse of discretion standard is appropriately deferential to the prosecutor’s decision to seek waiver when the statutory conditions are present while simultaneously acting to curb arbitrariness and the abuse of discretionary authority, thereby promoting the legislative interest in uniformity.

An abuse of discretion review does not allow the court to substitute its judgment for that of the prosecutor.  Rather, a review for abuse of discretion involves a limited but nonetheless substantive review to ensure that the prosecutor’s individualized decision about the juvenile before the court, as set forth in the statement of reasons, is not arbitrary or abusive of the considerable discretion allowed to the prosecutor by statute. Cursory or conclusory statements as justification for waiver will not suffice to allow the court to perform its review under the abuse of discretion standard because such statements provide no meaningful explanation of the prosecutor’s reasoning.  Applying that standard, we further hold that, in the instant matter, the prosecutor’s explanation in the Statements of Reasons was, in certain respects, lacking in detail.

Therefore, we reverse and remand for a more full explanation by the prosecutor as detailed herein.

September 12, 2012 at 03:19 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Saying it's an abuse of discretion standard in favor of the prosecutor, so long as they explain themselves seems a little mixed up to me. It just sounds like the sort of standard a judge who is inclined to rule for the prosecution will rule in their favor regardless while one not so disposed will simply say that the explanation was lacking in some manner.

But then, given the wide discretion that has historically been granted to prosecutors, I'm honestly not sure any better option is available either.

Posted by: Soronel Haetir | Sep 13, 2012 11:00:12 AM

Pof. Berman, Sentencing decision? Perhaps you would explain that a bit more. My, admittedly out-of-date knowledge of juv. C.J. was that the procedures of juv. justice were somewhat different from those for adults. Has this, too, changed?

Posted by: tim rudisill | Sep 13, 2012 1:42:35 PM

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