1. a. Except as provided in P.L.1991, c.81 (C.2C:20-17) and N.J.S.2C:35-6, any person who is at least 18 years of age who knowingly uses, solicits, directs, hires, employs or conspires with a person who is in fact 17 years of age or younger to commit a criminal offense is guilty of a crime.
b.An offense under this section constitutes a crime of the fourth degree if the underlying offense is a disorderly persons offense. Otherwise, an offense under this section shall be classified one degree higher than the underlying offense.
c.Notwithstanding the provisions of N.J.S.2C:1-8, a conviction under this section shall not merge with a conviction for the underlying offense. Nor shall a conviction for the underlying offense merge with a conviction under this section. Nothing contained in this act shall prohibit the court from imposing an extended term of imprisonment pursuant to 2C:43-7; nor shall this be construed to preclude or limit a prosecution or conviction of any person for conspiracy under N.J.S.2C:5-2, or any prosecution or conviction for any offense.
d.It shall be no defense to a prosecution under this act that the actor mistakenly believed that the person which the actor used, solicited, directed, hired or employed was 18 years of age or older, even if such mistaken belief was reasonable.