Juveniles under the age of 18, who commit offenses that would otherwise be deemed criminal, if they had been committed by an adult, are subject to the provisions of New Jersey’s Code of Juvenile Justice, found in N.J.S 2A:4A 20 – 92.

What happens if the juvenile in question is not mentally competent to stand trial? In the criminal context, if an adult defendant wanted to claim “insanity” or unfitness, he or she would be required to raise the issue as a defense and submit to a psychiatric examination.
In the juvenile context, the law is designed to try and provide juveniles with some semblance of the rights that adult defendants have. They get lawyers if they can’t afford their own, appointed through the Office of the Public Defender. They have many rights afforded adult criminal defendants – the right to confront witnesses, the right to have the prosecution prove every element of the case against them, they have rights to testify or the right to refuse testify.

In State of New Jersey in the Interest of N.C., the Appellate Division methodically explained why juveniles who raise the competency issue as a defense are entitled to the same protections adult defendants are and equally importantly, who pays for it and why. Even though the Office of the Public Defender (“OPD”) is a state agency, as is the Department of Human Services (“DHS”) (who pays for the exams for adult defendants) OPD argued it could not be required to pay for an evaluation of its own client to support a defense since that report could conceivably implicate other constitutional rights – such as effective assistance of counsel or the privilege against self-incrimination.

The Appellate Division agreed, and ordered DHS to assume responsibility for funding, as they normally do in adult criminal cases. Why does this matter? Why does it seem like a straight forward issue, that should have been resolved at the same time the state set up a system for adjudicating juveniles accused of committing what would otherwise be called ‘crimes’ still remain subject to question? And what’s the big deal if one state agency or the other pay for the cost?

It matters because OPD has a duty to represent an indigent client, whether an adult or juvenile, to the best of its ability, uncompromised by reports it is mandated to produce on sensitive issues of mental competency. A public defender does a disservice to his client if he is expected to obtain a report, that could potentially be damning to his client, and undermine his effective defense. Furthermore, the Office of the Public Defender, like most organizations nationwide who represent indigent clients, is already operating on a limited financial budget. If the justice system rightly demands that indigent people have counsel in criminal cases, those organizations can be burdened only so much with the operating costs of providing effective assistance of counsel. Already juggling heavy caseloads, and statutory deadlines, and compensated at below market rates, expecting the organization to add to its costs on top of what it already pays for is yet another handicap.

For a truly disturbing view of what happens when Public Defenders are pushed beyond their means, look at “Chasing Gideon: The Elusive Quest for Poor People’s Justice,” by Karen Houppert. Anyone familiar with criminal justice on television can recite the right to an attorney, and some people may even be able to recall the U.S. Supreme Court case that cemented the right to counsel (Gideon v. Wainwright) (there’s a movie too, starring Henry Fonda).
The practical reality of making this dream meaningful though, is another story. That’s why New Jersey’s decision, albeit unpublished, is refreshing in the sense that it respects the degree to which rights that we mandate for adults, also belong to juveniles accused of comparable criminal behavior. If they are going to be tried in a legal system, then we owe it to them to safeguard the precious rights they have. While juvenile proceedings in theory were designed to create a distinctive model of adjudicating behavior, in a way that is meant to be rehabilitative and family focused, sometimes well-meaning systems like this actually hurt the participants more because there is less adherence to strict Constitutional safeguards. An earnest desire to help a wayward juvenile avoid the harsh consequences of a criminal record is good in theory, but the system  must never diminish the individual liberties of an accused in the interest of a softer justice.

If you need assistance in a matter involving a juvenile complaint, contact the Law Offices of Sadaf Trimarchi, to ensure your child’s rights are protected.