New Jersey Lawmakers Advance Juvenile Justice Overhaul

By John Celock

A New Jersey legislative committee has advanced legislation that would overhaul the state’s juvenile justice system.

The Assembly Law and Public Safety Committee voted Monday to approve legislation that would require due process for transferring juveniles into adult prisons, new restrictions on the use of solitary confinement for juveniles and changes to how juveniles are tried. The bill has previously passed the state Senate.

“It is where the juvenile is sent to, to serve their sentence that is the difference between a rehabilitated juvenile and a non-rehabilitated juvenile,” state Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Haledon), a sponsor, told the panel.

Pou said the legislation is born out of a series of research she and others have done on the issue of juvenile detention and the need to focus on juvenile detention centers instead of prison like environments. She said the state has done work in changing the administrative code governing juvenile detention to focus more on rehabilitation than on detention.

Among the issues, Pou said she was looking to focus on was to keep juveniles out of the adult prison system, along with reducing solitary confinement and placing a focus on rehabilitation. She told the committee that she worked with various groups to craft the legislation.

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson), a sponsor of the bill, told the committee that the sponsors had worked with acting state Attorney General John Hoffman’s office to craft a bill that would work for a variety of stakeholders in the process. The attorney general’s office remained neutral on the bill.

“A child being sent to an adult detention center has no benefits at wall,” Sumter said. “Everyone did agree that changes need to be made.”

Juvenile justice reform has been gaining steam in state Legislatures around the country. The Annie E. Casey Foundation has been promoting the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative, which seeks to resign juvenile detention facilities into more home like atmospheres with a focus on rehabilitation, along with more at-home placement. Advocates have said it reduces recidivism.

Changes to juvenile justice have gained bipartisan support. In addition to the bill advancing in the Democratic-controlled New Jersey Legislature, a public safety budget panel in the Republican-controlled Kansas House of Representatives approved a plan to expand a JDAI initiative in that state earlier this year.

“Congregate livings for adolescents in the kinds of behaviors they have are not home like,” Kansa House Transportation and Public Safety Budget Committee Vice Chairman Russ Jennings (R-Lakin) told The Celock Report in February. “You have the offenders and put them in one place you have the possibility of a contagion effect. It is more likely of creating more problems.”

Dan Phillips with the New Jersey Administrative Office of the Courts told the public safety panel Monday that the goal from the courts was to reduce recidivism.

“It is targeting rehabilitation and changing people rather than prison where they’ll get out in five years and go back to the community and influence another generation of youth,” Phillips said.