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Does the Constitution Guarantee a Right to Trial by Jury for Juveniles?

When people under the age of 18 are charged with a serious offense, their case is heard by a Family Court judge.  Juvenile court is supposed to be a kinder, gentler court, one more focused on rehabilitation than its adult counterpart.  For that reason, juvenile cases are tried before a judge, not a jury.  A recent ruling of the Kansas Supreme Court raises the question of whether juveniles have a right to a jury trial.

In a landmark decision, the Kansas Supreme Court has ruled that the Kansas Constitution and the United States Constitution grant a juvenile the right to a jury trial.  New Jersey Courts are not bound to follow this new Kansas rule, and in very many cases a jury would not make a difference.  However, it is now good practice to consider whether to request a jury trial in a juvenile case.

In New Jersey, the a Family Court judge sits as the “finder of fact” in a juvenile.  That is, in a trial the prosecution presents the evidence to the court (witnesses, documents, photographs, recordings, experts, etc) and the judge decides whether the state has proven the charge beyond a reasonable doubt.  If the judge decides that the prosecution has proven the charge beyond a reasonable doubt, then the juvenile is adjudicated delinquent.  This result is the juvenile court equivalent of a verdict of guilty.

The Kansas Supreme Court held that the United States Constitution requires a jury trial for juveniles.  The Kansas Supreme Court is not the final arbitor of the United States Constitution, so that the United States Supreme Court may well decide this issue differently from the Kansas Supreme Court.  Additionally, New Jersey courts are not bound to follow precedent from the courts of other states.  However, this decision will provide a persuasive authority in New Jersey cases.  That is, an attorney for a juvenile who faces serious charges will be able to argue that that particular juvenile has the right to a jury.

Most cases are pretty clear cut on whether the person is guilty or innocent of the charge.  The majority of juveniles, therefore, would not necessarily benefit from a jury trial.  However, in the most serious cases, where there may be issues of guilt or innocence, juveniles should now consider asking for trial by jury in New Jersey.

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