Yannick Wood of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice testifies on Dec. 18, 2023, before the Senate law and public safety committee at the Statehouse on Trenton in support of a bill that would set a minimum age for juvenile delinquency in New Jersey at 14. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)
A proposal to set a minimum age for juvenile delinquency at 14 in New Jersey hit a snag Monday when lawmakers worried that it would enable younger youth who commit serious crimes to dodge accountability.
Lawmakers in two legislative committees agreed to advance the bill, with amendments. But in both the Senate’s law and public safety committee and the Assembly’s appropriations committee, the bill prompted many anxious questions from conflicted legislators who said they agreed with its intent — to protect youth from the ravages and stigma of the criminal justice system and reduce racial disparities — but worried about its impact.
Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-Morris) called it a “dangerous” bill.
“An unfortunate byproduct, I think, of this bill could be that gangs could force younger children to commit crimes because they can get away with it, because they can’t be arrested. So they’ll have the 13-year-old steal the car or shoot somebody,” Bergen said. “I just think it’s got a bad potential effect in that regard.”
Sen. Declan O’Scanlon (R-Monmouth) voiced concerns about whether the bill, if passed, would leave victims of crimes committed by youth under 14 excluded from crime victims’ assistance funds and services.
Bergen and O’Scanlon voted against the bill, and in both committees, the bill squeaked through in votes split along party lines.
New Jersey now has no minimum age for juvenile delinquency, like about half of the states in the nation.
“Theoretically, a 3-year-old can be prosecuted in New Jersey,” said Laura Cohen, a law professor and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School.
Most states that have set a minimum age for juvenile delinquency have drawn the line at 10 to 13 years old, with two states, Washington and Florida, setting the bar at 8 and 7, respectively.
Still, the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 2019 recommended all countries set the minimum age of criminal responsibility at 14 years old, without exception.
And that’s what Cohen and other advocates urged legislators to do.
Children under 14 do not have the capacity to understand and fully participate in the proceedings against them, Cohen told lawmakers. She reminded lawmakers that children under 14 rarely commit serious crimes, pointing to data from the state’s Juvenile Justice Commission showing just three 14-year-olds now under state supervision. The three are on probation, meaning their crimes weren’t serious enough to warrant incarceration.
“The harms of arrest, the harms of prosecution, the harms of judicial involvement are profound,” Cohen said. “They impact every sphere of children’s wellbeing — their educational wellbeing, their health, and their mental health wellbeing. It increases rather than decreases the risk of recidivism.”
The bill also would help reduce the worst-in-the-nation racial disparities in New Jersey’s criminal justice system, said Yannick Wood of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
“In the Garden State, a Black youth is incarcerated at a staggering 28.6 times the rate of their white counterpart,” he said.
Wood ticked off examples of other states’ outsized reactions to misbehaving children that landed them in the criminal justice system.
“Without setting a minimum age, New Jersey runs the risk of occurrences like that of Kaia Rolle, a 6-year-old arrested in a Florida school after having a tantrum, or Phillip Roybal, who was arrested in Colorado at 12 years old for stealing baseball cards at school, and a 6-year-old in North Carolina, a boy, arrested for destruction of property for picking a flower,” Wood said.
The amendments approved Monday would direct the state Attorney General’s Office to create a working group to advise policymakers on how to implement the law and give the working group 18 months to do so. The group’s work would include recommending what to do with lawbreakers younger than 14 and how the state could ensure young offenders get mental health services and their other needs met to make certain they don’t reoffend.
The bill still faces a vote before both the full Assembly and full Senate before it heads to the governor’s desk, and time is running out for all three of those steps. The current legislative session ends Jan. 9.
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