Pou Legislation to Reform Juvenile Justice System Goes to Governor

Senator Nellie Pou, D-Passaic and Bergen, speaks during a Senate Budget Committee hearing on the FY 2012 State Budget.

TRENTON – A bill sponsored by Senator Nellie Pou that would make reforms to the juvenile justice system in order to improve the prospect of rehabilitation for young people who are charged, convicted or incarcerated received final approval today by the full Senate.  

The bill, S-2003, builds on previous efforts to reform the system with a focus on helping to rehabilitate juveniles and make communities safer. The legislation addresses the process used to transfer youths from the juvenile system to the adult system, and to address confinement conditions in the facilities.

“Young people in the criminal justice system deserve a second chance to improve their lives,” said Senator Pou (D-Bergen/Passaic). “With this measure, we aim to rehabilitate these individuals and break the cycle of crime and imprisonment plaguing our communities. Ultimately, these crucial changes will advance our juvenile justice reform effort and better ensure that children in the system have the tools to set them on the right path to becoming contributing members of society.”

First, the legislation would raise the minimum age to waive a child into the adult court system from the current 14 to 15,allowing for a 60-day period to evaluate an individual’s case to file a waiver rather than 30 days. However, it permits juveniles over age 15 to be waived to adult court for serious offenses such as murder, robbery, and kidnapping. In addition, this bill would require a prosecutor to review a variety of factors about the juvenile before considering a waiver. Guidelines for evaluating a case would be provided by the Attorney General.

“Placing children in the adult court system should only be done when it is absolutely necessary, especially in cases involving low-risk juveniles,” said Senator Pou. “There has been no evidence to support that waiving youths reduces juvenile crimes. Yet, studies have shown that young individuals who are waived to the adult system are more likely to recidivate. With these guidelines in place, we will provide clearer and more appropriate parameters when it comes to waiving juveniles.” 

Second, the bill would raise the age to transfer adolescents and children from juvenile detention centers to adult facilities from 16 to 18. The plan would include notifying the individual of the transfer and the reasons behind it in writing. A juvenile would also have the opportunity to be represented and heard if they have any objections. During trial hearings and before sentencing, individuals would be presumed to stay in juvenile detention centers, under the bill. In certain circumstances, youths may serve their sentence in a juvenile facility until the age of 21  if  good cause is shown.

In consultation with the Attorney General, the Juvenile Justice Commission would also establish a program to collect, record, and analyze data to keep track of juvenile waiver cases. The commission would publish and submit its findings biennially online and to the Governor and the Legislature.  

“It is imperative that we give youths the chance to rehabilitate and improve their lives,” added Pou. “Young individuals who are sent to the adult system have an increase likelihood of reoffending, committing violent crimes much sooner than their counterparts detained at juvenile detention centers. Not to mention that it is less likely that juveniles will receive the educational services and mental health treatment needed in adult facilities.”     

Third, the bill would impose limits according to age on the amount of time a juvenile could spend in solitary confinement, known as room restriction in the juvenile justice system. In general, youths can only spend 8 hours a day in room restriction for no more than 10 days total within a month. Under the bill, no more than two consecutive days of solitary confinement would be permitted for juveniles who are age 15; no more than three consecutive days for those up to age 17; and no more than five consecutive days for those age 18 and older. In addition, a child under room restriction would continue receiving their physical and mental health and educational services, under the bill.

“We have to be incredibly careful about the use of solitary confinement in the juvenile system,” said Pou. “Establishing appropriate measures that will ensure the safety and well-being of children and adolescents in juvenile detention centers is the right thing to do.”

The final part of the legislation would allowprosecutors to extend an individual’s sentence at a juvenile detention center, if requested, for up to three years. 

In 2004, the Annie E. Casey Foundation (AECF) provided a grant of $300,000 to the State of New Jersey to be part of its Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiatives (JDIA) starting with 5 pilot program sites and increasing to 16 sites. Today, the joint initiative with the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC), the New Jersey Judiciary and local agencies has met most of their goals, including the reduction of youth retained in detention centers and the closing of facilities. Since its implementation, the Department of Law & Public Safety’ saw a reduction of over 50 percent of its juvenile detention population, from 2,500 to over 1,100 between 1997 and 2010. To date, there are more than 1,000 juveniles in detention centers or residential programs across New Jersey, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Center. However, reports from the Annie E. Casey Foundation indicate to problems in recidivism and the mental health state of individuals in juvenile detention centers.      

According to studies across states provided by the Foundation, 38 to 58 percent of young people released from juvenile corrections facilities are found guilty of new offenses within two years and 45 to 72 percent within three years. New Jersey alongside states like New York, Louisiana, Maryland, and Virginia reported a range of 15-46 percent in recidivism. In addition, the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement reported that two out of every five young people in a residential commitment program had not received any mental health counseling.

A study by Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union noted the harmful affects that solitary confinement have on young individuals in correctional facilities. Experts asserted that since they are still developing, juveniles can become traumatized by the experience, exacerbating any mental health problems. According to the National Center for Mental Health and Juvenile Justice, one in five children and young adults in custody have a mental illness that impairs their ability to function.

S-2003 was approved by a 29-10 vote. It was approved by the Assembly last week by a vote of 53-24 and now heads to the Governor’s desk.