NJ Juvenile Justice Reforms Setting New National Standards

By Michael Hill

They hailed the new juvenile justice reforms as a landmark law for dealing with young offenders.

“This legislation built on previous efforts to reform the system with a focus on helping to rehab juveniles and to make our communities safer,” said Senator Nellie Pou.

Pou spearheaded the effort and got two major sponsors in the assembly.

“We did what we were sent to Trenton to do — which is to sit at the table and to change legislation that will have life-sustaining impact on our citizens,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter.

“The investment in our children is a great investment. It’s better to invest now, be it $19,000 for public education or a couple thousand dollars for vocational training, than to spend $54,000 of incarceration,” said Benjie Wimberly.

“Sending the youth to the adult facility is not rehabilitation, and when they return back home they’re worse off than they were. We just give God thanks for this opportunity and this law today,” said John Givens of Passaic Youth Services.

The new law raises the age of rehabilitation from 19 to 26 and raises the age a juvenile case can be transferred to adult criminal court from 14 to 16 based on research of brain development. It gives those 18 years old due process before transfer to an adult jail. It gives family judges more power to order rehabilitative services for juveniles. Advocates say the new law puts major restrictions on solitary confinement and requires facilities to report when they isolate minors and for how long.

“Now for the first time if we find that a kid has been locked in a small room as punishment, it’s a violation of the law. So we have recourse in even the ordinary case of that,” said Alex Shalom from the NJ ACLU.

One retired judge says the frontal lobe of the brain doesn’t develop until someone is 24 years old. He says the science has been there for years and it’s about time lawmakers in states take advantage of it.

“For close to 40 years we’ve tried to punish our way to public safety, but that experiment failed. This law signals a new direction, but it’s not a new experiment. This is a turn in the direction of public safety through science,” said retired judge Lee Forrester.

“Actually it’s quite almost miraculous,” said retired judge Roger Daley.

Six years ago Daley was a Middlesex County Superior Court judge who cited scientific studies in preventing prosecutors from placing juveniles into adult court. The case wound up in the state supreme court and became an impetus for juvenile justice reform.

“It hasn’t really made it more difficult to waive a child into adult court. What is has done is it’s made it more thoughtful that we have to think a little bit more about what we’re actually doing,” Daley said.

“What we did here was something a lot of people didn’t think could have been done, but what the judiciary was looking for for years,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Advocates say what New Jersey has done is so impressive, it can be used a blueprint for juvenile justice reform across the nation.