NJ Takes Another Step to Support Youth and Address Racial Equity in Juvenile Justice System

The significance of Attorney General Gurbir S. Grewal’s directive to further reform the juvenile justice system is worth highlighting. Advocates for Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) views this directive, which takes effect January 11, 2021, as another step towards building a juvenile justice system that gives youth the support they need as well as addresses racial equity.

A key function of the juvenile justice system is to rehabilitate youth, rather than act punitively, and help them enter adulthood less likely to break the law by holding them accountable while equipping them with the skills necessary to stay out of trouble. For the vast majority of youth offenders, the system works best when youth are diverted away from formal court proceedings for minor offenses and towards social or familial supports.

The directive outlines five approaches available to police officers and prosecutors to divert youth from the juvenile justice system and limit the likelihood of unnecessary detention. It clearly states that “[w]hen considering when and how to use each of these five mechanisms, officers and prosecutors should start with the presumption that juveniles should be diverted out of the juvenile justice system whenever possible, so long as the diversion will promote accountability, advance the juvenile’s rehabilitation, and not present safety risks to the community.”

Five Diversionary Approaches:

  • Curbside Adjustment – Curbside warnings, or informal “talking to”, are to be used whenever an officer observes a juvenile engaging in some minor act of delinquency. The conversation occurs in the community, not at the police department, and can be as simple as an officer telling a teenager to “knock it off” without any further formal proceedings.
  • Stationhouse Adjustment – This currently exists, but is not used or tracked throughout the state. While this approach is more formal than a curbside warning, it still diverts a juvenile from the juvenile justice system because no charges are filed. Instead, law enforcement works with the family and community resources rather than the courts to address the violation. The youth and a parent or caregiver are asked to come to the police station to discuss an alleged offense and work together to develop an appropriate resolution, which is then memorialized in a written agreement. The officer may refer the juvenile to community services and, if property has been stolen or damaged, require the juvenile to make restitution in some form. Anonymized information will be collected and made publicly available, including age, the unlawful act, self-reported race, ethnicity and gender and whether the stationhouse adjustment was completed.
  • Complaint-Summonses – In more serious cases when the officer concludes more formal charges are necessary, the directive provides some flexibility through the use of complaint-summonses in lieu of complaint-warrants. Filing a complaint-warrant allows the officer to take custody of the charged individual and detain them, while a complaint-summons allows the individual to remain in the community until their initial court appearance. By treating the complaint-summons as the “default” charging document for juveniles and reserving the complaint-warrant only for the most serious charges or to ensure the safety of the public, officers and prosecutors can ensure that youth offenders are not subject to unnecessary detention in a juvenile facility immediately following the filing of charges.
  • Presumption against placing a youth in detention while a case is pending. Reinforcing presumption against detention ensures that the majority of juveniles accused of delinquency remain in the community during their court proceedings, allowing them to draw on their communities for support and rehabilitative services. State law appropriately limits pretrial juvenile detention to cases where a youth has failed to appear at court proceedings or where, for certain categories of offenses, the juvenile’s release would seriously threaten the physical safety of persons or property in the community.
  • Consideration of other diversion when possible. This directive contemplates that prosecutors will, even in cases in which charges have been filed against a juvenile, continue to evaluate the case to determine whether diversion would better accomplish the goals of the juvenile justice system over formal court proceedings. A prosecutor may consider, among other things, dismissing the complaint in favor of a stationhouse adjustment or referring the case to diversionary programs operated by the judiciary, including the Intake Service Conference, the Juvenile Conference Committee or the Family Crisis Intervention Unit.

ACNJ applauds Attorney General Grewal and his staff, the New Jersey Judiciary, as well as the prosecutors and law enforcement involved in developing the directive, and the efforts of colleagues on the New Jersey Council on Juvenile Justice System Improvement, who continue to seek better ways to improve outcomes for our youth. ACNJ also recognizes Jennifer LeBaron, Ph.D., Acting Executive Director of the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) for her leadership in the development of the Attorney General’s directive as well as her leadership in New Jersey’s ongoing implementation of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI).

About New Jersey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives (JDAI)

New Jersey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) was formed in 2004 with the support and leadership of the Annie E. Casey Foundation and is managed by the JJC. Since the program’s inception, JDAI has resulted in a dramatic decrease in detention populations throughout New Jersey without risk to public safety. JDAI fosters a fundamental shift in the way law enforcement, prosecutors, judges and public defenders handle juvenile crime cases by moving the focus from locking kids up to returning them to their communities and addressing the issues that led to criminal behavior. JDAI has helped reduce costs considerably, due to the reduction in daily population in detention and subsequent closure of many county detention centers. Since 2003, the year before New Jersey implemented JDAI, the JJC reports that the total number of juveniles in detention per year has dropped by 80 percent, from about 12,000 to less than 2,500, with youth of color accounting for almost 90 percent of the decline. JDAI implementation has also significantly reduced the number of juveniles incarcerated in state facilities, with youth of color being the most impacted by the reduction. While more work is needed to address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, significant progress has been made.

JDAI provides a framework for conducting a thorough, data-driven examination of the detention system, and for using that objective 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 we can 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 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. As a result of JDAI, there has been a significant reduction of juveniles incarcerated in state facilities, with youth of color being the most impacted by the reduction. While more work is needed to address racial disparities in the juvenile justice system, progress has been made.

Youth who are placed in detention alternative programs in lieu of detention receive supervision and support in their communities while awaiting the outcome of their case in court.

The New Jersey Judiciary has also developed an action plan to address institutional bias and inequality within the court system. In releasing its plan in July, the NJ Supreme Court acknowledged the exemplary work of the Administrative Office of the Courts and its director, Judge Glenn A. Grant, in particular, in the development of the action plan.

For any questions, contact Mary Coogan at mcoogan@acnj.org.