As news has come out that six Sayreville high school football players have been arrested for alleged sexual assaults against younger players as part of locker room hazing, the calls for retribution by various members of the community are starting to get louder. The six players that were arrested (a seventh remains at large), range in age from 15 to 17. One of the typical arguments you hear from the enraged public in these types of cases is that the juveniles should be tried as adults, so as to face enhanced criminal punishments.
According to reports, the most serious charge against the Sayreville players that were arrested is first degree aggravated sexual assault. First degree aggravated sexual assault, when committed by an adult, carries a prison sentence of up to 20 years, 85% of which must be served prior to the defendant being eligible for parole. That means, in a best case scenario situation for the accused, he would serve eight and a half years of a ten year prison sentence before becoming eligible for parole. Under the juvenile system, the maximum period of incarceration for a first degree crime, assuming the accused has no prior record, is four years.
The criminal justice system, especially as it applies to juveniles, ought to be primarily concerned with the rehabilitation of defendants, not with retribution. If that is the case, it has long been recognized that the juvenile courts are in a much better position to fashion remedies that focus on rehabilitation, rather than retribution. If the Sayreville players are tried in adult court, there would be almost no rehabilitative aspect to their sentence. If convicted, they would merely be sentenced to long prison terms, thereby drastically reducing the probability of their return to society as rehabilitated productive members of society. On the other hand, a juvenile judge is in a better position to craft remedies that include significant rehabilitative components, such as counseling and therapy.
The other issue, besides retribution and rehabilitation is deterrence. Deterrence is divided into two categories specific (deterring the individual charged from committing a similar offense in the future) and general deterrence za(deterring others in society from committing similar offenses). Some make the argument that trying these individuals as juveniles would not have a sufficient deterrent effect, and therefore they should be tried as adults. Those who make these arguments are usually unfamiliar with the collateral effects of an adjudication of delinquency for a sexual assault by a juvenile in New Jersey. Specifically, even juveniles who are adjudicated delinquent in New Jersey are subject to the registration requirements of “Megan’s Law.” The registration requirements are mandatory for 15 years following either a conviction for sexual assault or the completion of any term of incarceration, whichever is later. After the 15 year period expires, the individual may petition the court to be taken off of the registry; however, these requests are rarely granted.
In my experience, the collateral consequences of a conviction for a sexual assault, especially the requirement to register as a sex offender under “Megan’s Law”, have a far greater deterrent effect than incarceration. Given that the criminal justice system, especially as applied to juveniles, favors rehabilitation over retribution; the prosecutors in this case should not exercise their authority under the waiver rules (individuals 16 and over are subject to “prosecutorial waiver” without a rehabilitation hearing) and should try these individuals as juveniles. An added benefit is that cases move through the juvenile system at a much faster pace, resulting in quicker “closure” for the victims. In any case, the individuals that are charged are innocent until and unless proven guilty.
UPDATE: Since the time this article was originally posted, the seventh individual surrendered to authorities.