New Jersey Supreme Court Decision in In Re K.O.

Sentencing Issue in New Jersey Juvenile Courts

The goal of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate, rather than to punish.  That is why sentencing for juveniles leans more toward keeping juveniles in the community and out of custody.  Having said that, there are circumstances and offenses that the courts and the juvenile justice system deem worthy of incarceration.  Beyond that, there are circumstances that no only require incarceration, but an “extended term” of incarceration.  The Supreme Court recently decided a case on this very issue.  Our team of Burlington County Juvenile Lawyers think the Supreme Court was well reasoned and appropriate.  It also serves to meet the goal of the Juvenile Justice Code.

up on the latest decisions in the area of juvenile justice.  The recent decision in State in the Interest of K.O. On February 24, 2014, the New Jersey Supreme Court issued a decision interpreting a juvenile sentencing statue.  Specifically, N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-44(d)(3).  Individuals under the age of 18 are not governed by the adult criminal code.  Rather, they are subject to the Juvenile Justice Code (“JJC”), N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-20 to -90.  The JJC dictates the consequences of a juvenile after he or she is adjudicated delinquent.

In certain circumstances, a juvenile can be sentenced to incarceration at the New Jersey Training School for Boys (NJTS).  That term of incarceration depends on the degree of the crime he/she is adjudicated of.  In the case of a second-degree crime, a juvenile is subject to a maximum sentence of three (3) years of incarceration at the NJTS.

Under N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-44(d)(3), under certain circumstances a juvenile can be sentenced to more that the maximum amount of incarceration set forth in the JCC.  The JCC provides that if he/she has two (2) previous adjudications “which, if committed by an adult, would constitute a crime of the first or second degree, and was previously committed to an adult or juvenile facility”, they are subject to up to two (2) more years of incarceration.  This is referred to as “Extended Term” eligible.

The Trial Court and the Appellate Division

In State in the Interest of K.O., K.O. had previously been adjudicated of a single prior second degree offense.  After a disposition hearing (trial) before the juvenile judge in the Superior Court, K.O. was sentenced for his second, second degree offense.  Rather than being exposed to a maximum term of three (3) years at a juvenile detention facility, the juvenile judge ruled that K.O. was “extended term” eligible and sentenced him to an additional two (2) years at the NJTS, for a total of five (5) years.

The Appellate Division affirmed the decision of the juvenile judge and rejected the argument that section 4A-44(d)(3) requires two (2) previous adjudications in order for a juvenile to be extended-term eligible for a present adjudication.  K.O. petitioned the Supreme Court for Certification, which was granted.

The Supreme Court’s Decision in State in the interest of K.O.

The Supreme Court held that N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-44(d)(3) requires two (2) separate previous predicate adjudications for the imposition of an extended-term sentence on a juvenile, including one (1) that resulted in incarceration in a juvenile or adult facility, exclusive of the adjudication for which the disposition court is sentencing the juvenile.  In the case of K.O., he only had one (1) prior qualifying adjudication and, therefore, was not extended term eligible.  The two (2) year extended term was reversed, resulting in a three (3) year term of incarceration at the NJTS.

The Supreme Court’s decision in State in the Interest of K.O. is not the law of the land and will benefit every juvenile across New Jersey.