According to this article, it's not uncommon for minors to be tried as adults in New Jersey. It's even less uncommon for them to be a minority.
Here's how it works:
If a young person—under the age of 18—commits a serious-enough crime, like robbery, drug trafficking, or murder, a county prosecutor can petition the court to try the minor as an adult. Then it's up to the judge to determine whether the request merits an adult or juvenile trial.
According to the report, in the past five years New Jersey prosecutors asked judges to try 1,251 youth as adults. Of that number, 87.6 percent were black or Hispanic. Of the 1,251 requests, over half—692 to be exact—were granted by judges.
According to Laura Cohen, the director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School, Caucasian youth commit the same ‘waivable’ offenses as black youth, but prosecutors don't send as many requests to judges for them.
She says: “Controlling for nature of offense, controlling for family background, controlling for educational history—all of the things that go into a prosecutor’s decision, there are still disparities, significant disparities, that cannot be explained by anything other than race.”
While there are safeguards in place to, at some level, protect youth (like housing juveniles in separate units) from older populations where they are often further tutored in criminal behavior, being tried as an adult means kids get saddled with "permanent, adult records and adult sentences."
(One note: New Jersey did pass a law in March of this year to prohibit youth being sent to adult facilities until they reach 18, but this law isn't retroactive. So, if you were 15 when convicted in February, you still have to serve out the rest of your sentence in an adult prison.)
There are two issues at play here. One, the serious need for policymakers in our country to review and reconsider laws that have lasting—and perhaps devastating—consequences on young people, who are still in a time of serious growth and development and perhaps not fully able to understand the depth of the consequences of their actions. (Billy Kidd, profiled here, talks about how after he was sentenced to adult prison at age 17, he was "mentored in crime" by older prisoners).
Prison Fellowship is working hand in hand with lawmakers in Michigan—one of the few states that automatically tries youth under 18 as adults, regardless of how minor the cause—to raise the age to 18. Click here to learn how you can help.
The second issue is that of race. One that is at the fore of our national conscience. For a young person to be tried as an adult can be a matter for ethics and wisdom. For a young person to be treated more harshly than his lighter-toned counterpart, that is an issue of blatant injustice. Situations like this are reminders that blind justice is rare at best, and the need for prudent, fair prosecutors, judges, and laws has never been greater.
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