Sunday, December 21, 2014

It's better not to lock up juvenile defendants

For years, New Jersey sent juveniles awaiting trial to county detention centers, locking them up even for minor crimes. But a new report on juvenile justice reform shows that there is another, more effective, alternative that saves taxpayer money and protects society.

It's better not to lock up juvenile defendants

Juveniles shouldn´t be treated like adults when it comes to sentencing. (Paul Lachine)
Juveniles shouldn't be treated like adults when it comes to sentencing. (Paul Lachine)

For years, New Jersey sent juveniles awaiting trial to county detention centers, locking them up even for minor crimes. But a new report on juvenile justice reform shows that there is another, more effective, alternative that saves taxpayer money and protects society.

The number of juveniles jailed across New Jersey has declined by more than half since the state started a program eight years ago to divert them to other options, according to the Kids Count Special Report.

Funded by a $200,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the program has been implemented in 16 counties. Similar programs have been adopted in other states. The results in New Jersey are staggering. Last year, there were 4,093 juveniles admitted to county detention centers, compared with 10,191 before the program began in 2004.

For young defendants not considered a threat to public safety, the program changed the misguided focus of solely locking them up to allowing alternatives, such as electronic monitoring and home visits. They also receive job training, counseling, and other services more in line with the intent of juvenile justice — giving youths a second chance.

Providing compelling evidence that some youths are good candidates for rehabilitation, the report found that only 3 percent of participants committed another crime while in the program.

According to the report released by Advocates for Children of New Jersey, youths detained are more likely to commit another crime, more likely to have trouble in school, and more likely to have difficulty finding a job.

In a continuation of a disturbing trend, minority youths still make up the majority of those being locked up — about 89 percent. But that mirrors national statistics that must be addressed.

With fewer juveniles held in lockup facilities, some counties, including Gloucester, were able to close their detention centers. Across the state, $16 million a year has been saved as a result.

New Jersey’s laudable efforts should be replicated elsewhere to help prevent so many of today’s youthful offenders from becoming tomorrow’s adult criminals.

About this blog

The Inquirer Editorial Board's Say What? opinion blog showcases the work of the editors and writers who produce the newspaper's daily and Sunday opinion pages.

Find out more about The Inquirer's Editorial Board here.

The Inquirer Editorial Board
Also on Philly.com
Stay Connected