Submitted by New Jersey Sex Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark
The acts of violent sexual hazing that seven New Jersey high school football players are accused of committing have been called “horrendous” by school officials and “extraordinarily disturbing” by Gov. Chris Christie.
Now, as the players from Sayreville War Memorial High School await their first court hearing this week, Middlesex County authorities face a daunting question under escalating scrutiny: whether to charge some or all of the boys as adults.
In a town where football is a local obsession, that question, already among the trickiest to sort out for prosecutors, has become even more so as attention to the case is amplified by a national debate swirling around the misdeeds of professional and college players.
Under New Jersey law, offenders under the age of 18 are automatically brought into the juvenile justice system, where they see a family court judge, even when the underlying crimes are serious and violent. But that can quickly change.
After first charging the teenagers under juvenile delinquency, prosecutors can apply for a waiver to bring the case into the adult system. Such waiver requests must be made within 30 days of filing formal delinquency charges, setting up a potentially fast-moving series of closed-door discussions between prosecutors and lawyers for the teenagers.
“What happens very frequently is that the threat of waiver induces pleas in the family court,” Alexander Shalom, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, said. “Middlesex County has been traditionally pretty aggressive with its use of waiver.”
A spokesman for Andrew C. Carey, the Middlesex County prosecutor, did not respond to questions on Sunday related to the case of the Sayreville players, including when their first court date would be. A 2011 analysis of court data for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice found that Middlesex County prosecutors sought waivers in roughly 20 percent of felony-level cases, higher than the 12 percent state average.
For those on trial, the ramifications of going into the adult system are substantial, including longer prison terms and a criminal record if convicted.
The teenagers, arrested on Friday and Saturday, were charged as juveniles with a list of serious offenses stemming from four separate hazing episodes against four teenagers, the prosecutor said. Three face charges including aggravated sexual assault — a violent crime that alone can carry up to a 20-year prison term in the adult system — for “an act of sexual penetration,” authorities said. Four others face a lesser top charge of aggravated assault.
As juveniles, none have been named and their court records remain sealed; hearings in the juvenile system are also closed.
Whether a case is moved into the adult system depends on several factors, including the history of the teenager, his age and the nature of the charge. They may also consider a victim’s opinion, said Laura Cohen, a professor at Rutgers Law School who is focused on juvenile justice issues.
“Some don’t want children subjected to the very harsh ramifications of an adult prosecution and conviction,” she said.
For a 15-year-old charged with a serious offense, a defense attorney can fight a waiver by arguing that his client is a good candidate for the sort of rehabilitation programs that are the focus of the juvenile justice system. But after age 16, that option mostly disappears, Ms. Cohen said, and all prosecutors need to do to obtain a waiver is prove probable cause that the teenager committed the crime.
Even if they remain in the juvenile system, the teenagers could still face stiff punishments. A sex crime conviction could mean years in a juvenile detention center, and the teenager’s name would be added to a sex offender database. “It is not just a slap on the wrist,” Ms. Cohen said.
Originally published here by the New York Times.