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The Oregon Wildfire & NJ Juvenile Delinquency Law

The Oregon Wildfire & New Jersey Juvenile Delinquency Law

Surely by now you have heard about the case arising out of Oregon wherein a teenager admitted to throwing a firework into a canyon in Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, igniting a massive wildfire that burned nearly 47,000 acres over almost three months in Clackamas County’s Eagle Creek community.

He pleaded guilty to eight counts of reckless burning of public and private property, two counts of depositing burning materials on forest land, as well criminal mischief and reckless endangerment of others.

In a widely publicized ruling on May 21, 2018, Oregon Circuit Court Judge John Olson ordered the boy to pay $36,618,330 in restitution to the various parties damaged by the blaze. This figure includes $21M to the U.S. Forest Service, $12.5M to the Oregon Department of Transportation, $1.6M to the Oregon State Fire Marshall, and $1M to the Union Pacific Railroad, among others. The extraordinary judgement also includes restitution payments to homeowners whose homes were lost or damaged in the blaze, such as a $5,000 payment to Eagle Creek resident Iris Schenk who was living in a rental home that burned in the fire.

About Schenk, owner of the rental home, Tim Heuker commented, “She lost everything. Personal stuff that can’t be replaced.”

The teen who started the wildfire was also ordered to serve five years’ probation, perform 1,920 hours (80 days) of community service for the U.S. Forest Service, and write apology notes to the 152 individuals affected by the fire.

While many have criticized the hefty judgment, Judge Olson wrote in his opinion that the “restitution is clearly proportionate to the offense because it does not exceed the financial damages caused by the youth,” and he also makes mention of several “safety valves” built into the Oregon juvenile delinquency statute, “which serve to ensure that the restitution statute as applied in any particular case, even one as extreme as this one, does not ‘shock the moral sense of reasonable people,’” such as the establishment of a payment schedule. Additionally, if after 10 years, if the teen successfully completes probation, doesn’t commit additional offenses, and complies with the payment plan, the court can grant full or partial satisfaction of the restitution judgment.

A New Jersey Perspective

As Judge Olson points out, the Oregon juvenile delinquency statute supports the large restitution judgement, as the over $36M figure represents an approximate calculation of the damages suffered by each of the affected parties, thus complying with the “proportionate” requirement of the statute.

New Jersey also has a juvenile delinquency statute which includes a restitution provision; however, it reads (in relevant part):

“The Court shall not require a juvenile to make full or partial restitution if the juvenile reasonably satisfies the Court that the juvenile does not have the means to make restitution and could not reasonably acquire the means to make restitution.”

Consequently, if the Oregon wildfire had instead occurred in New Jersey, it seems likely that the restitution judgement would be considerably less extravagant.

The restitution restrictions in New Jersey’s juvenile delinquency statute are one of example of how New Jersey has been more progressive in recent years in how juvenile justice is administered in the state. This is largely because the seeming goal of New Jersey juvenile delinquency law is geared towards rehabilitative ends rather than retributive punishment.

For example, juvenile delinquency proceedings in New Jersey are heard in Family Court, not in Criminal Court. Further, these proceedings are private, taking place in a closed court. Additionally, in terms of punishment, New Jersey courts have been moving away from sending juvenile offenders to prison-like facilities, opting instead for smaller, group-home settings with alternative treatment, closer to the offender’s family so that familial support is more widely available during the rehabilitative period.

Recall, back in January of this year, then-Governor Chris Christie announced the planned closure of two state prisons for juvenile offenders – the New Jersey Training School in Monroe Township known as Jamesburg, and the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility in Bordentown known as Hayes. The decision to close these facilities was premised upon various studies which indicate that long-term youth incarceration actually increases recidivism rates, as well as upon cost projections which indicate that New Jersey spends an incredible $200,000 to incarcerate a child for one year in a youth prison.

Ryan Haygood, the CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said that the announced closure of these two facilities is a significant step in the right direction, adding that, “for too long the way New Jersey has done youth incarceration is in a far away setting that is often too remote and too removed from the real supports that young people need. The reality,” he went on, “is that familial support is essential…”

Legal support is also essential.

Competent legal counsel, experienced with and educated in the state’s juvenile delinquency statute is critical to ensuring a beneficial outcome.

Therefore, if you are a juvenile who has been charged with an offense, or if you are the parent or guardian of a juvenile who has been charged with an offense, please reach out to Drinkwater & Goldstein, LLP today at (856) 753-5131. We also handle expungements. Your initial consult over the phone is free!

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