NJ Leads Nation in Dramatic Drop in Juvenile Incarceration

Contact: Nancy Parello| 973-643-3876 | nparello@acnj.org

New Jersey led the nation with a drastic decline in the rate at which youth are locked up, plummeting 53 percent over a 13-year period, while still maintaining public safety, according to a new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Nationally, the detention rate declined 37 percent from 1997 to 2010, according to the KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot. New Jersey saw the fifth highest drop in juvenile detention nationally.

According to the Casey report, the number of young people in correctional facilities on a single day fell to 70,792 in 2010, from a high of 107,637 in 1995. This downward trend, revealed in data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Census of Juveniles in Residential Placement, has accelerated in recent years.

In New Jersey, this trend is credited in part to the state’s participation in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), a national project led by the Casey Foundation. While this initiative focuses on reducing the number of youth confined in county detention facilities, it has also resulted in far fewer youth being committed to longer-term incarceration in the Juvenile Justice Commission’s facilities. New Jersey is the only state to be designated a national model for detention reform as part of this initiative.

“This has been, arguably, one of the most significant successes to benefit New Jersey youth over the past decade,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “Today, we have a juvenile justice system that largely uses detention for only the most serious offenders. This has resulted in a juvenile justice system that is smarter, safer and saving taxpayer dollars.”

Despite this rapid decline nationally, the United States still leads the industrialized world in locking up its young people, and holds the majority of its incarcerated youth for nonviolent offenses — such as truancy, low-level property offenses and technical probation violations — that are not clear public-safety threats, according to the Casey report.

“Locking up young people has lifelong consequences, as incarcerated youth experience lower educational achievement, more unemployment, higher alcohol and substance abuse rates and greater chances of run-ins with the law as adults,” said Bart Lubow, director of the Foundation’s Juvenile Justice Strategy Group. “Our decreasing reliance on incarceration presents an exceptional opportunity to respond to juvenile delinquency in a more cost-effective and humane way — and to give these youth a real chance to turn themselves around.”

The snapshot, which follows the Foundation’s 2011 report No Place for Kids: The Case for Reducing Juvenile Incarceration, indicates most states and the District of Columbia mirrored the national decline, according to data from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Several, including New Jersey, even halved their youth incarceration rates. Still, the rates vary dramatically by state. In 2010, a young person in South Dakota, which has the highest incarceration rate, was 11 times more likely to be locked up than one in Vermont, which has the lowest.

Although the nation’s five largest racial groups also saw decreasing numbers among their ranks, the data show the justice system still treats youth of color more severely. African Americans are nearly five times as likely to be locked up as their white counterparts, and Latinos and American Indians are two to three times as likely.

The KIDS COUNT Data Snapshot suggests several ways to continue promoting less reliance on incarceration and improve the odds for young people involved in the justice system. These include restricting incarceration to youth posing a clear risk to public safety, investing in alternatives that effectively supervise, sanction and treat youth in their homes and communities, and encouraging states — which often have financial incentives to use incarceration — to seek community-based alternatives to locking up kids.

The new snapshot features the latest data for states, the District of Columbia and the nation, as does the KIDS COUNT Data Center, home to comprehensive national, state and local statistics on child well-being. The Data Center allows users to create rankings, maps and graphs for use in publications and on websites, and to view real-time information on mobile devices.

Read the report.


The Annie E. Casey Foundation is a private national philanthropy that develops solutions to a build brighter future for children, families and communities. For nearly two decades, the Foundation has supported efforts to reform the juvenile justice system, primarily through its groundbreaking Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a model adopted by a nationwide network of about 200 jurisdictions in 39 states and the District of Columbia. For more information, visit www.aecf.org. KIDS COUNT® is a registered trademark of the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Advocates for Children of New Jersey is a child research and action organization working to ensure that every child has the chance to grow up safe, healthy and educated.