ACNJ Testimony on Status of NJ Juvenile Justice System

Posted on September 14, 2018

ACNJ was invited by the NJ Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee to provide information on the status of our state’s juvenile justice system. Read testimony to learn what is happening in the juvenile justice arena.

To:       Assemblyman Adam Taliaferro and
Members of the Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee
Date:   September 13, 2018
From: Cecilia Zalkind and Mary Coogan, Advocates for Children of NJ
Re:       Justice Issues in New Jersey

Thank you for the opportunity to provide information to this committee on the status of the juvenile justice system here in New Jersey. When ACNJ was founded in 1978, our focus was on children in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems. Through various avenues, ACNJ continues to advocate for safe alternatives to incarceration for troubled youth and improved conditions for youth who must be confined. We work to expand understanding of policies and practices that can put these youth on a path to productive adulthood — a result that is good for both youth and the state. While youth should be held accountable for their actions, the goal of the juvenile justice system is to keep youth in their communities whenever possible and equip them with the skills they need to stay out of trouble and mature into productive adults.

I have been at ACNJ since 1993 and have been involved in many reform efforts. I feel that New Jersey has seen more steady positive progress on behalf of youth coming into contact with the juvenile justice system in recent years than during any other time, due to the collaborative efforts and partnerships of various committed entities and stakeholders, both private and public, who desire to see positive outcomes for these youth.

There is always opportunity for improvement, and I know that you want to hear about those opportunities as well. There remains an overrepresentation of youth of color within our juvenile system and more needs to be done to address the causes of this disparity. There is still work to be done to ensure that youth who get into trouble at school do not wind up in the juvenile system because of behavioral problems that could be addressed elsewhere. Preventing youth from having any involvement with the juvenile justice system should be our primary goal. Certainly, we need to do more for our youth and young people who are committed to state custody because of their criminal activity, because we want to give them the tools to become productive adults.

As you can see from my written testimony, I have divided my comments into different topics and have provided materials in folders documenting what has been accomplished and efforts currently underway. I urge you to read these materials in detail when you have time. We at ACNJ are happy to provide more specifics on any of these topics if you would like more detailed information or additional background research. Right now, I will offer some highlights.

Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative or JDAI
As you will read in the 2017 JDAI Annual Report in your folders, “JDAI is premised on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s philosophy that youth involved in the juvenile justice system should have opportunities to develop into healthy, productive adults as a result of policies, practices, and programs that maximize their chances for personal transformation, protect their legal rights, reduce their likelihood of unnecessary or inappropriate incarceration, and minimize the risks they pose to their communities.” In 2004, the Annie E. Casey Foundation selected New Jersey to be among the first states to replicate the nationally recognized Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. At that time, more than half of the detention centers in our state were overcrowded. Since JDAI started, detention centers in many counties have permanently closed their doors and none of the remaining centers have overcrowding issues. New Jersey is now a national model in that other states come here to find out how to use JDAI to improve their juvenile justice systems.

The Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) is the lead agency for JDAI in New Jersey, providing the management and staffing infrastructure and partners with the New Jersey Judiciary in this effort. As of 2017, 19 counties were actively participating in JDAI in New Jersey, including Atlantic, Camden, Essex, Hudson, Monmouth, Bergen, Burlington, Mercer, Ocean, Union, Passaic, Somerset, Middlesex, Cumberland, Warren, Gloucester, Cape May, Sussex, and Salem. Morris and Hunterdon Counties joined this year. Yesterday, the Casey Foundation sent a blog post to its network recognizing New Jersey’s accomplishments through JDAI, including a decrease in the average daily detention center population statewide by nearly 70 percent between 2003 (pre-JDAI) and 2017 without impacting public safety, and the closure of eight county-operated detention facilities since JDAI reforms began, resulting in an annual savings of $21 million. A copy of that post is in your folders.

JDAI provides a framework for conducting a thorough, data-driven examination of the detention system, and for using that information to develop strategies for system improvement. The entities involved in juvenile justice cases come together to look at the data and ask why and how can we do it better. They have built these relationships over years of working in partnership, which allows for more frank dialogue about real issues and concerns that need to be addressed to continue to improve the overall system and thus outcomes for our youth. County-based JDAI committees meet regularly and work to reduce the number of youth unnecessarily or inappropriately held in secure detention, while maintaining public safety and ensuring youth appear for scheduled court dates. JDAI sites have achieved remarkable results in terms of reducing reliance on detention for youth charged with violations and low-level offenses. Through JDAI, New Jersey has demonstrated that reliance on secure detention can be reduced safely while improving outcomes for youth.

There is still an overrepresentation of youth of color within the system and youth of color still remain in care longer than white youth, although JDAI is having a positive impact. There are ongoing efforts supported by the Casey Foundation and other working with stakeholders in Camden County to figure out why these disparities exist and to further reduce the overrepresentation of youth of color in confinement. The lessons learned through this work will be shared with other counties. A report of their progress was given at the last Council meeting and I was impressed by the effort and commitment of the stakeholders in transforming the culture and practices in Camden County. While the end goal is what we want, this is difficult and time-consuming work. While some things can be achieved through legislation, I think institutionalizing culture and systemic practice changes take time and partnership, which requires the building of trusting relationships. I urge you all to take advantage of any opportunity you are given to learn more about these efforts in what we call the “Deep End Reform”.

The NJ Council for Juvenile Justice System Improvement
The NJ Council for Juvenile Justice System Improvement (Council) brings together statewide representation of JDAI stakeholder entities to review the data and to challenge each other to do more to improve the system. Over the years, the Council, which is co-chaired by the Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) and the judiciary, has expanded its activities to address other areas that impact these cases and youth, such as disproportionality, mental health, shackling, education, and family engagement.

2015 Reforms to Juvenile Justice System
In 2015, Governor Christie signed into law significant and much-needed reforms to New Jersey’s juvenile justice system. On behalf of ACNJ, I would like to acknowledge and thank Assemblywoman Sumter for her leadership on this reform effort. She worked tirelessly with her colleague Senator Pou to negotiate an agreement among the various stakeholders concerning the provisions of this legislation, which was not an easy task. It was a great result for our youth!

The law raised the minimum age at which a child may be prosecuted as an adult from 14 to 15, narrowed the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult, and amended the standard governing waiver decisions to reflect the continuing maturation of young people through their mid-twenties. As a result of the legislation, New Jersey law now requires due process, including representation by counsel, before a young person who is confined in a juvenile facility can be transferred to an adult prison; and eliminated the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in juvenile facilities and detention centers, placing time limits on the use of solitary confinement for reasons other than punishment, such as safety concerns.

The legislation also included provisions for the collection of data and reporting same to the Legislature. Specifically, the Juvenile Justice Commission, in consultation with the Attorney General is to establish a program to collect, record, and analyze data regarding waiver of jurisdiction of a juvenile delinquency case by the Superior Court, Chancery Division, Family Part to an appropriate court and prosecuting authority. In furtherance of this program, the Juvenile Justice Commission shall, in cooperation with the Administrative Office of the Courts, Attorney General, and county prosecutors, collect data related to the decision to seek waiver of jurisdiction of a juvenile delinquency case, which shall include but not be limited to data concerning: (a) youth demographics, including age, gender, race, and ethnicity; (b) case characteristics, including the degree of the offense waived, the degree of the offense convicted, and the final court resolution; (c) case processing times; and (d) waiver rates by race and ethnicity.

The JJC is required to prepare and publish on its Internet website biennial reports summarizing the data collected, recorded, and analyzed pursuant to this law and biennially prepare and transmit these reports to the Governor and the Legislature along with any recommendations the commission may have for legislation concerning waiver of jurisdiction of juvenile delinquency cases. I respectfully urge members of this committee to ask for that data if you have not already received some reports.

ACNJ was part of a coalition of advocates, the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition that pushed for these and other system-wide reforms of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, including promoting alternatives to incarceration for youth and improving conditions of confinement for those who are incarcerated. Other members of that coalition were the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest at Lowenstein Sandler, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, and Rutgers Law School Children’s Justice Clinic in Camden and Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic in Newark. This group subsequently evolved into what is now the steering committee for Youth Justice New Jersey, a coalition staffed by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Youth Justice New Jersey
The mission of Youth Justice New Jersey is to reduce the number of incarcerated youth; promote rehabilitative community-based alternatives to incarceration; ensure incarcerated youth are free from abusive practices and that they receive quality services and education; end school policies and practices that push youth out of classrooms and into the criminal justice system; and eliminate disparate treatment of youth of color in the juvenile justice system. The Institute successfully led the charge for closing New Jersey’s secure facilities, approved by Governor Christie at the end of his term. ACNJ is focused on school-to-prison pipeline related issues and our other colleagues at the ACLU, Rutgers’ law school clinics and Lowenstein Sandler are focused on issues of confinement, currently looking at needed juvenile parole reform.

Disrupting the School-to Prison Pipeline
With regards to the work that I am more specifically involved with related to the school-to-prison pipeline, I am happy to report that even prior to the formation of Youth Justice New Jersey and at the urging of ACNJ, the Council established an education subcommittee, now called the School/Justice Partnership Subcommittee. It is co-chaired by the Honorable Eugene Iadanza, a retired judge who handled juvenile cases for many years, and the Immediate Former State Board of Education President, Mark Biedron.

Beginning in 2015, members of the subcommittee began examining data, first looking at school generated referrals to law enforcement and the Family Courts. Counties voluntarily agreed to allow staff from the JJC to analyze the demographics and charges of these referrals. The initial results were presented at a statewide conference that ACNJ coordinated with the JJC, inviting members of county JDAI committees, school district staff, law enforcement, and members of the NJ Legislature after they listened to presentations from state officials and national experts about how we could improve the handling of school discipline matters and why we should.

As a result of these initial efforts, county JDAI teams have been expanded to include educators and behavioral health professionals to help identify more effective ways to handle school discipline matters. The New Jersey Judiciary approved the subcommittee’s request to modify the juvenile delinquency complaint form to include a question regarding whether the incident was school-based. This will allow more accurate data collection, upon which other systemic improvement will occur. The subcommittee also asked JJC staff to complete surveys to help determine barriers preventing youth leaving JJC facilities from re-enrolling in their community schools in a timely manner. Practice changes were implemented as a result of the discussion of the subcommittee about the survey results. These and other accomplishments are outlined in one of the handouts in your folders.

Members of the School-to-Prison Pipeline Working Group of the Youth Justice New Jersey Coalition are also making an impact. In January the ACLU published its report on New Jersey’s use of two diversionary programs: curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments, reporting the data the ACNJ was able to gather. The report urges the increased use of “strong diversionary programs at the front end of the system”, which “can be particularly consequential for youth of color, who are disproportionately subject to arrest, charge and detention.” A copy of that report in in your folder. New Jersey also has a few Youth Courts which are also effective diversionary programs. A member of the working group is the Youth Court Coordinator for the Newark Youth Court and another member is coordinating a restorative justice project in Montclair school. Both would be happy to talk with any of you about their program.

Closure of Jamesburg
As I stated earlier the Institute successfully led the charge for the closure of The New Jersey Training School, commonly known as Jamesburg. We understand that efforts are currently underway to move this process forward. When the state’s proposal was reviewed by the State Leasing & Space Utilization Committee, the initial proposal of three regional secure facilities housing 50 youth had been changed to two secure facilities housing 74 or 75 youth in each. ACNJ shared the concerns of the Institute and other members of the Youth Justice Coalition that any facilities built to replace Jamesburg or other secure youth facilities in New Jersey need to reflect current research in that they be small, more therapeutic, and accessible to the families of the youth housed in the facilities. At the time and I believe now, there are less than 150 youth incarcerated in Jamesburg, so our state’s need for secure facilities is minimal. Facilities with 30-50 beds are more than sufficient.

Most importantly, any funds realized from the closing of Jamesburg and other secure facilities should be invested in a much needed continuum of community-based program for our youth, both juvenile offenders and towards preventive services for youth. Our ultimate goal should be to continue to reduce the number of youth who become involved in the juvenile justice system in the first place by intervening with services at the front end of the system.

The National Institute of Justice, in collaboration with Harvard Kennedy School’s Program in Criminal Justice Policy and Management released a report in 2016 called The Future of Youth Justice: A Community-Based Alternative to the Youth Prison Model. Patrick McCarthy, President and CEO of the Casey Foundation, was one of the authors of this report, which is in your packet.

The report highlights that America’s current approach to youth incarceration is costly, ineffective, and can seriously harm young people. It documents recent research in developmental psychology and argues that states and localities should adopt a different approach that protects public safety and is more informed by evidence of what works. The authors conclude that the current youth prison model should be replaced with a continuum of community-based programs and, for the youth who require secure confinement, “smaller homelike facilities that prioritize age-appropriate rehabilitation.”

So the take-away is to stop spending money on what does not work and reinvest that money in a community-based system that does work. While this report and ACNJ acknowledge that there will also be a need for secure placements for some youth, what JDAI has shown us is that New Jersey no longer needs large secure prison-type facilities. The numbers of youth entering our secure facilities on an annual basis have been reduced from about 1200 pre-JDAI to less than 200 currently. The JJC is now able to bring young adults previously sent to adult corrections back into the juvenile system where they can receive needed services.

Juvenile Offenders and Megan’s Law
On April 24, 2018, the New Jersey Supreme Court unanimously decided In the Interest of C.K., which ruled that leaving a juvenile on the sex offender registration for life is unconstitutional, unless they have a chance to prove that they no longer pose a threat to society. ACNJ joined a “friend of the court” brief in the case with the ACLU of New Jersey and the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School.
What the decision means is that a juvenile who was found to have committed a sex offense requiring registration with the state sex offender registry can apply for a hearing to be removed from the registry after 15 years, if he or she can demonstrate that he or she has not re-offended.

The court’s decision is part of a broader change in the way that courts and the criminal justice system treat juveniles who commit offenses because of better understanding of the adolescent brain and its capability for change. Psychology and cognitive science research have shown what common sense has long told us: teenager behavior is different from adult behavior. Teen brains are more likely to engage in risky and impulsive behavior without thinking about the consequences, and the behavior of teenagers and young adults does not necessarily predict their behavior as adults.

In the specific case of juvenile sex offenders, the research shows that juvenile sex offenders are less likely to commit crimes upon release than adults and that the adolescent brain is not fully mature. In this context, the potential impact of lifetime sex offender registration is also potentially devastating. As Justice Albin states in the opinion: “[T]he permanent status of sex-offender registrant will impair a juvenile, as he grows into adulthood, from gaining employment opportunities, finding acceptance in his community, developing a healthy sense of self-worth, and forming personal relationships. In essence, the juvenile registrant will forever remain a social pariah.”

This case will not end the discussion about what policy is best to deal with juvenile offenders. Some teenagers commit terrible acts and those actions cannot be taken back. But the brain science is moving us in a commonsense direction towards treating teenagers like teenagers and helping them become more complete and supported adults, rather than labeling them as irredeemable. This may be an issue for a future discussion.

Career Paths in the Field of Juvenile Justice
Rutgers University is receiving a planning grant from the Juvenile Justice & Delinquency Prevention Committee to develop a program in Juvenile Justice and Youth Development. The goal of this project is to increase the number of advanced level learners in the field of juvenile justice and to enhance the skills and knowledge of professionals currently working or who have an interest in the field of juvenile justice. This is in furtherance of the long-time goal of the Council to develop a distinct career path in juvenile justice. Rutgers will begin to develop and implement an undergraduate minor in juvenile justice and youth development, by both building on existing multi-disciplinary courses offered, and by developing new courses specific to juvenile justice and youth development. The grantee will also work to ultimately establish a formal undergraduate major in this area, entering into memoranda of understanding with partners to host internships and create field placements, and offer short courses to existing professionals that result in specialized certification in the field of juvenile justice.

Thank you again for the opportunity to provide this information to the Committee. I think the progress made within the juvenile justice system in recent years is exciting and the momentum is building for even greater reforms that will improve outcomes for our youth. I cannot stress enough that the relationships and partnerships that have developed through JDAI are a critical component to the continued successful reform of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system.

ACNJ will continue to support the JDAI efforts and its work on the Council and the youth Justice New Jersey Coalition. We are happy to provide additional information to this committee and your colleagues in the Legislature as needed.