The Progress Made by New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice System Gives Me Hope

Mary Coogan, Esq.
ACNJ vice president

In September, David Goodman, a New Jersey-born actor who graduated from Woodrow Wilson High School in Camden, spoke to the state Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) Class of 2018 about facing hardships and not giving up. The ceremony had all the making of a traditional high school graduation, complete with six graduates receiving academic awards, family and friends celebrating with lots of photos, and even government officials Attorney General S. Gurbir Grewal, Lieutenant Governor Sheila Y. Oliver, JJC Executive Director Kevin M. Brown, and JJC Director of Education Tremaine Harrison in attendance.

The main difference? This graduation was taking place at the state’s largest youth facility for juvenile offenders, the New Jersey Training School for Boys, otherwise known as Jamesburg.

Listening to the speakers share statistics about ongoing juvenile reform efforts, and the cheers of the audience as smiling graduates tossed their caps in the air, congratulating each other, gave me some hope that we are on the right track.

In addition to the 60 students participating in the graduation, 72 students received their diplomas or their High School Equivalency Diplomas (HSEDs) earlier in the year and have since been released from JJC supervision or did not participate in the ceremony.

During his remarks, Attorney General Grewal explained that since 2003, there has been an 85 percent reduction in the number of youth committed to the care of the JJC by the courts, from 1,200 annually in 2003 to approximately 176 statewide in 2017. Youth of color account for 85 percent of this reduction. While there is still an overrepresentation of youth of color in county detention centers, the JJC and its partners through the New Jersey Council on Juvenile System Improvement (Council) continue to have data-driven conversations to identify strategies to address this serious problem.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation recently commended New Jersey for its success under the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), an effort to reduce the number of youth unnecessarily or inappropriately placed in detention, while protecting public safety and helping troubled youth address issues that led to criminal behavior. Since its nationwide implementation, JDAI has helped more than 300 locations safely reduce their juvenile detention populations.

New Jersey, a national model in JDAI, has decreased its average daily juvenile detention center population statewide by almost 80 percent between 2003 (pre-JDAI) and 2018 without impacting public safety, and has closed eight county-operated detention facilities since JDAI reforms began, resulting in an annual savings of $21 million. Research by the Casey Foundation has also demonstrated that in addition to the large reduction in daily detention populations, jurisdictions participating in JDAI, including New Jersey, have seen an equally steep decline in the number of youth committed to state juvenile correctional facilities.

But there is more to be done.

The JCC has been working to safely and significantly reduce out-of-home placements and incarceration, particularly for youth of color, who are still overrepresented within the system and remain in care longer than white youth, despite the positive impact of JDAI. Stakeholders, including the Casey Foundation and other national experts, are working together with officials in Camden County to determine why the racial disparities exist and how to solve them. The lessons learned in Camden County will then be shared throughout the state. Though difficult and time-consuming, the work is needed if New Jersey wishes to achieve better outcomes for our youth.

The most recent report of their progress was given at the last Council meeting. I was impressed by the effort and commitment of the judges, court staff, probation staff, prosecutors, public defenders and mental health professionals in transforming the culture and practices in Camden County. Families, schools, law enforcement and members of the community are all being engaged to build relationships that can help our neediest youth.

The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice led the charge to close Jamesburg and Hayes, the secure youth facility for girls, a goal that ACNJ supported and advocated for as well. The former Christie administration committed to the closure in December 2017, planning to replace existing large secure facilities with smaller, state-of-the-art regional facilities that are closer to the homes of these juveniles. Smaller, treatment-intensive, developmentally appropriate facilities, will allow for the delivery of therapeutic wrap-around services in a non-institutional environment, as recommended by national experts such as the National Institute of Justice and Casey Foundation. Closing Jamesburg is projected to save approximately $20 million a year, which should be applied to therapeutic and delinquency prevention services. We need to make sure that investment happens!

For more information, contact Mary Coogan at mcoogan@acnj.org

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