Report shows police can do more to reduce youth incarceration

BY Michael Hill, Correspondent |

If New Jersey wants to reduce its adult prison population and lift a heavy burden from taxpayers, it should focus on keeping juveniles out of the system. That’s what the ACLU concludes in a new report. It points out the missed opportunities to handle more first-time minor offenses through diversionary programs called stationhouse adjustments.

“They’re just not being used to their full capacity,” said Portia Allen-Kyle, a criminal justice transparency fellow at the ACLU of New Jersey. “There seem to be a number of difficulties in implementation.”

Diversionary programs offer juveniles a second chance. It did for 23-year-old John-Michael DePrado. He’s in the Army overseas now, but eight years ago he was in trouble with the law in Somerset County.

John’s mother, Laura DePrado, says he came to realize he had a ton of local support, including the police and the folks at Middle Earth, a nonprofit that helps teens through diversionary programs. John did community service.

“The community service time further enriched an exposure, ties to community, other peers, other leaders. So it was really an eye opener,” continued Laura.

For the parents and for John.

“His processing of his options and what does his life look like to continue to make poor choices,” she said.

Middle Earth says it diverts 100 kids a year from the system with a success rate of 90 percent.

“I think it’s undervalued because it’s really difficult to measure prevention and diversion because how do you track what’s not happening. These kids that are not re-offending are not going into the adult system, how do you track that?” asked Middle Earth Program Director Christine Hons.

All over the New Jersey, police departments use diversion programs, or stationhouse adjustments as some call them, to keep juveniles out of the formal juvenile justice system. It all depends how far teenagers go to cross the line. In Mahwah they use the stationhouse adjustment about a hundred times a year.

“Very minor offenses that are not indicative of a child who is in need of more formal hearing,” said Chief James Batelli of the Mahwah Police Department.

Batelli says police will consult parents, school officials and even the victim to assess if a juvenile is fit for a diversionary program. That requires a frank conversation and signing a contract.

“We try and put them in the driver’s seat and let them see how their actions were incorrect. And maybe, in the spur the moment, they did think,” said Chief Batelli.

Middle Earth asked the Somerset prosecutor to approve requiring parents’ participation when their teen is involved in a minor drug case.

“It’s a 50 minute course that they are required to attend with their child. I, quite frankly, think it’s a great idea and I said absolutely,” said Somerset County Prosecutor Michael Robertson.

The ACLU survey relies on statistics from 17 of New Jersey’s 21 counties and found young blacks were offered diversion way less than whites in juvenile drug arrests.

“A lot of bias, some implicit and some very much overt, enters the system at different decision making points,” said Allen-Kyle.

The state Attorney General’s Office sets the guidelines for stationhouse adjustments under a 2008 directive. The ACLU says it’s time to revise that in a state where police arrest and process more than 20,000 juveniles every year for low-level, “things-that-kids-do” offenses.