Connecting the Dots
New Jersey Juvenile Justice: Past, Present and Future
Bruce D. Stout
Association for Children of New Jersey’s Annual Conference
Association for Children of New Jersey celebrates twenty five years of
advocating for the well-being of the State’s children and adolescents, it is
only fitting that the Association examine the current state of
Some of the
systemic problems that
The juvenile justice system is predicated on the idea that the “state” is acting as “parens patriae,” or as benevolent surrogate parent. As a result, as recently as the 1960s, juveniles typically received none of the due process rights that adults enjoyed. There was no right to confront witnesses against you, for example. There was no need, it was thought, to establish safeguards that protected children’s rights, because the juvenile justice system was ostensibly acting in children’s best interests. Juveniles accused of committing crimes could also be held with adults, in adult jails and prisons. Juveniles who were not accused of any crime, but rather were accused of being something, such as “incorrigible” or “truant,” (so called “status offenders”) could be also institutionalized with adults. The right to counsel had not been established.
National Level Changes
The 1960s brought significant change to juvenile justice. In the milieu of the civil rights movement and President Lyndon Johnson’s “war on poverty,” attitudes about delinquency began to change and an increasing focus was paid to community-based prevention and intervention. In 1968 Congress passed the Juvenile Delinquency Prevention and Control Act. This Act recommended that “status offenders” be removed from juvenile court jurisdiction, encouraged diversion from formal court processing for many youth accused of committing acts of delinquency, and endorsed community alternatives to institutionalization.
In 1969 the U.S. Senate created a Subcommittee to Investigate Juvenile Delinquency. This Subcommittee, under the chairmanship of Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana, held five years of public hearings on juvenile delinquency, the culmination of which was the 1974 Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. The JJDP Act, as it is commonly referred to, made awards of state block grant funds contingent on compliance with “core requirements” in the Act. This put the federal government in the position of encouraging state action on key policy goals, a leadership role that has significantly changed the face of juvenile justice throughout the country. The 1974 Act required deinstitutionalization of “status offenders.” Reauthorizations of the Act have included additional core requirements, including removal of youth charged with delinquency from jails, “sight and sound” separation of adults and juveniles in other facilities, and a focus on disproportionate confinement of minority youth.
most significantly, in 1966 the U.S. Supreme Court, in In Re Kent, began
a period of activism in juvenile justice that significantly changed the
landscape of how children and adolescents involved with the courts were
As a result of changing attitudes, action by Congress, and Supreme Court intervention, the face of juvenile justice was completely transformed. Except in rare circumstances, we no longer allow juveniles to be institutionalized in adult facilities. We have extended many (although not all) due process rights to juveniles. Status offenders are no longer held with adults and typically are not involuntarily institutionalized at all. These are significant and important changes. At the time these changes were taking place, few would have thought that the juvenile justice system could undergo such comprehensive and fundamental change. As we think about improving the system today, it is important that we remember that with vision and commitment, we can continue to make major strides in improving the system designed to respond to youths accused of violating the law.
State Level Changes
state level, during ACNJ’s lifetime
The 1984 Code of Juvenile Justice and the concomitant creation of a family court were designed to achieve several policy goals. The philosophical approach was to view juvenile misconduct in the context of the family. The family court was intended to provide a single forum where all family law matters --matrimonial, child custody, and delinquency -- could be heard. Juvenile-family crisis intervention units were mandated in each court vicinage to provide a family-focused, 24/7 response capacity to crises involving youth who, since 1974, had been designated as Juveniles In Need of Supervision (JINS), a classification that was abolished in the new Code.
The 1984 Code authorized a whole new range of dispositional options, including counseling, substance abuse treatment, and other therapeutic interventions, to which family court judges could sentence juveniles who were adjudicated delinquent. The Code required that the Division of Youth and Family Services (DYFS) submit to the court a “service plan” within 14 days (30 days, for good cause shown) for all youths placed under the Division’s care by the family court. The Code also outlawed the commitment to a correctional facility of any juvenile determined to be developmentally disabled.
As the new Code and the new family court were taking effect, New Jersey Supreme Court Chief Justice Robert Wilentz assumed a leadership role. He spurred the creation of a statewide Youth Services Commission that brought together the judiciary, the heads of all the state executive departments involved in serving youth, and county and local youth serving representatives. Chief Justice Wilentz personally chaired monthly meetings of the Commission that focused on inter-systems coordination and implementation of the new Code and family court. Also at this time, the Chief Justice, along with the Commissioner of Human Services and the New Jersey Attorney General, co-signed a letter that went out to all county executives encouraging them to create county youth services commissions to plan for and address the needs of at-risk and court-involved youth. Ultimately, every county did so.
ensuing decade, a number of changes to
large-scale reform of
Another significant component of the 1995 reform initiative was the creation of a $10 million State/Community Partnership Grant Program. Counties whose youth services commissions met the membership requirements articulated in the legislation were eligible to receive Partnership Grant Program funds. Youth services commissions were required to develop biennial plans for at-risk and court-involved youth and could use Partnership funds to support implementation of those plans. This funding was provided the first real resources for many youth services commissions that had been created in the mid-1980s in response to the call from the Attorney General, Chief Justice, and Commissioner of Human Services.
Another change in the 1995 initiative was the creation of post-incarcerative terms of community supervision that essentially allowed family court judges to include parole terms of up to one-third of the length of a commitment sentence for juveniles committed to the Juvenile Justice Commission, including those that “maxed out” of Commission facilities. The Juvenile Code was also amended to authorize the family court to order parents who failed to exercise reasonable supervision over any child who committed a delinquent act to pay restitution.
statutory changes of 1995, several less sweeping changes have been implemented
these changes, at both the national and state levels, have significantly changed
the landscape of juvenile justice in
· Inter-System Coordination
There are no “juvenile justice kids”
or “DYFS kids” or “mental health kids.”
There are children and adolescents who typically have multiple needs and
are involved in multiple child-serving systems. Several studies conducted on adolescents
Data from the Commission’s own intake assessment protocol provides additional evidence that youths in the juvenile justice system typically have a multiplicity of problems and are involved in other systems. Commission intake assessment data indicate that over two-thirds (69%) of adolescents committed to the Commission’s care and custody have a drug and/or alcohol addiction. Over one-half (51%) have been classified by a child study team and 42% have been expelled from school altogether. Additionally, 42% of juveniles committed to the Juvenile Justice Commission were involved with DFYS at the time of commitment, or had previously been involved with DYFS.
Over the years, several things have been done to attempt to better address the multiple problems that juvenile justice system involved youth present and to better coordinate services between the juvenile justice system and other child-serving systems. The State Youth Services Commission that was chaired by Chief Justice Wilentz provided a forum that brought the state departments most involved in serving youth (Human Services, Education, Labor, Health, Corrections, and the Attorney General’s Office) together with local representatives. Coordination of disparate efforts was a goal that the Commission strove to achieve. The 1995 codification of local youth services commissions was an attempt to extend this model for inter-system planning and coordination to the local level.
The 1992 transfer of residential group centers from the Department of Corrections to the Department of Human Services was explicitly done with the goal of coordinating the treatment provided in those centers with the services provided by the other Human Service divisions (principally DYFS and Mental Health and, to a lesser degree, Developmental Disabilities). Another key goal of that transfer was to make the costs of providing treatment services in those residential group centers eligible for federal reimbursement under funding streams that excluded reimbursement of correctional costs.
When the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee, whose recommendations led to the creation of the Juvenile Justice Commission in 1995, met to make recommendations for improving the juvenile justice system, arguably the most vexing policy issue that the Committee confronted was whether to recommend a single juvenile justice agency that focused exclusively on coordinating the services being provided by multiple state departments to court-involved youth, or whether to recommend the creation of a single department of child and adolescent services to coordinate the services being provided to all youth, whether court-involved or not. There was significant debate and discussion about this issue (more so than any other issue tackled by the Committee), and no clear consensus emerged.
Ultimately, the concern that court-involved youth would be triaged to the bottom of the priority list in a single department of child and adolescent services led many to endorse the recommendation of a coordinated juvenile justice agency that could fight for its own funding and resources. The enabling legislation for the Juvenile Justice Commission, that single state agency, did create an Executive Committee with the Attorney General and the Commissioners of Human Services, Education, Corrections, and Labor serving ex officio. The intent was for this Executive Committee to serve as a forum for resolving inter-system policy issues, similar to the forum provided by the Youth Services Commission chaired by Chief Justice Wilentz.
The Juvenile Justice Commission has been successful in the budget process, as evidenced by the fact that the State/Community Partnership Grant Program and State Incentive Programs have been funded at over $15 million annually. Yet it could be argued that this success may have, in fact, exacerbated the problem of inter-system coordination with other child serving agencies, a concern expressed by many when the Commission was created. If the Commission provides a viable placement option for children who, but for their delinquency, would be served by other agencies, those other agencies may be less inclined to serve those adolescents, whose behavioral problems make them among the most difficult to serve clients anyway. The formation of the Commission was not intended to obviate the responsibility of other agencies to provide services to eligible youth.
The intersection between child
protective services and juvenile justice poses one of the most vexing
problems. Abuse and neglect can
often be a precipitating factor in an adolescent’s involvement in
delinquency. Family court judges
are often openly vocal about being frustrated by their inability to get DYFS to
provide services that they feel are appropriate for youngsters before them on
delinquency charges. Some county
juvenile detention centers, which are often overcrowded, have had up to
one-third of their residents in a holding pattern waiting for DYFS
placements. Youngsters have been
sent to the
The relationship between the mental
health and juvenile justice systems can also be problematic.
Improving how we respond to the multiplicity of problems and needs that youngsters involved with the family court often have is an important challenge that New Jersey has clearly not mastered. There are at least three alternative ways to address this issue. First, the current response of increasing the specialized services available in the juvenile justice system can be expanded on. If this tack is taken, clearly that system will need an infusion of resources in order to provide a level and quality of treatment services not typically found in a juvenile justice system. Juvenile Justice Commission residential group centers would need a significant infusion of funds just to meet the licensing standards of DYFS residential treatment centers. While this approach may be the most direct approach to getting services to court-involved youth, we risk involving youngsters in a correctional system who might be more appropriately handled in a more therapeutic environment. There is also the loss of efficiency in creating parallel systems of care.
A second approach would be to create a system that fosters inter-system coordination and collaboration and that calls on each system to provide appropriate specialized services, where appropriate. The Commission’s Executive Committee has proven ineffective as a forum where key child serving agencies can work to resolve inter-systems issues. Originally chaired by the Attorney General and attended by cabinet members, the Executive Committee has devolved to the point where designees come to quickly vote on those matters the Commission’s enabling legislation requires the Executive Committee to approve.
A starting point could be the collaborative relationship that the Juvenile Justice Commission and the Department of Health and Senior Services’ Division of Addiction Services currently have. While the Commission does provide substance abuse treatment in its own facilities, the Division of Addiction Services also dedicates beds in its system of community-based licensed treatment providers for use by the Commission. Despite the fact that there is a pressing need for more adolescent substance abuse treatment capacity, there is arguably a better relationship between Division of Addiction Services and the juvenile justice system than any other state child-serving agency.
A third approach would be to create a single department of child and adolescent services that would include, and be responsible for, services to all youngsters, irrespective of court involvement. Such a department could include child protective services, mental health services, juvenile justice services, and perhaps even services for developmentally disabled youngsters. By bringing all services under one organizational roof, it is possible that we could improve upon all the problems created by our current system of “silo” services that don’t view youngsters in their totality.
This was the policy issue that the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee wrestled with in 1994 and 1995. The current effort to improve the child welfare system provides an excellent opportunity to revisit the problem of inter-system coordination and to design a new systems approach that provides the best possible treatment services to all needy youngsters, irrespective of which door they first enter the system through. To do this, there must be a conscious effort to include a discussion of services to court-involved youth in the policy debates and policy makers from the juvenile justice system must be at the table when decisions are made. It is only logical that ACNJ, with its history of advocacy for children, including children in the juvenile justice system, advocates to ensure that these issues are tackled in the current restructuring process.
Detention is designed as a short term, secure placement for juveniles awaiting a court hearing who are deemed to be a danger to others or at risk of failing to appear in court as scheduled, if released. The 1984 Code of Juvenile Justice contained a simple prohibition that remains in effect today: “No juvenile shall be placed in a detention facility which has reached its maximum population capacity” as designated then by the Department of Corrections and now by the Juvenile Justice Commission [N.J.S.A. 2A:4A-37(c)]. Despite this statutory prohibition, the simple fact remains that day in and day out, family court intake workers and judges place juveniles in overcrowded county detention facilities in violation of the law. Some county detention centers have held four times their capacity, forcing four youngsters to be housed together in a cell designed for one. In 2002, nine county detention centers had average populations that exceeded their rated capacities. The placements are clearly illegal, but nothing is ever done about it.
Why does this ongoing practice of violating the law go on? One reason is that there is a complex separation of powers issue involved. Family court judges will often argue that it is their responsibility to make decisions about whether a youngster before them requires placement in detention based on dangerousness or risk of flight. It is the responsibility of the county executive, these same family court judges will argue, to provide adequate detention capacity for all juveniles that are determined to be in need of detention placement by the court. But to county executives and freeholders who must dedicate tax revenue to pay for detention, this is an untenable situation. Detention centers are costly to build and operate. Many counties would need to undergo new construction to expand or replace their existing facilities in order to have enough beds to operate within the boundaries of the law.
With competing demands for limited revenue, such as schools and roads, detention centers simply house more youngsters than they were designed for. For the youngsters involved, however, the result can be devastating. While placement in a detention center that is not crowded can be a life altering event, placement in crowded detention centers exposes children to elevated risks of violence and victimization. Crowding limits the ability of administrators to provide adequate educational and therapeutic programming. Crowded detention centers also expose staff to elevated risks of assault and injury and make working conditions significantly more stressful.
There are only two factors that
influence detention center populations – the numbers of youths admitted and the
length of time that admitted youths remain. While both factors contribute to
crowding, one important source of this continuing problem in
The Commission applied criteria from
the U.S. Justice Department’s Committee for Standards for the Administration of
Juvenile Justice, from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency, from the
Institute for Judicial Administration and the American Bar Association’s Joint
Commission on Juvenile Justice Standards, and from the National Committee for
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. While all of the standards differed
with respect to restrictiveness, they found that based solely on the
dangerousness criterion, at best, only 74% of actual
The Juvenile Delinquency Disposition
Commission concluded that
This recommendation of the Juvenile
Delinquency Disposition Commission made in 1985 is as relevant today as it was
Another approach to limiting detention to only those cases where it is clearly warranted is to administratively apply an objective risk instrument to assess probability of flight or harm to others, if released. Such instruments are typically empirically derived from a retrospective sample of actual cases and statistically identify those individual factors that are predictive of risk to flee or harm others, if released. Administrative application of such an instrument, while it does not carry the force of law, should also be adopted as a way to assist decision makers to make appropriate detention placement decisions.
When the only option to detention is
to release a juvenile on his or her own recognizance, or to the custody of his
or her parents, judges may be forced to decide that, given the unique
circumstances, placement in detention is the only viable option. Other jurisdictions have successfully
dealt with detention crowding by creating a range of detention alternatives
ranging from electronically monitored home detention to programs where
youngsters report for the day while they reside at home at night. Some
The Annie E. Casey Foundation has
successfully worked with policy makers and practitioners in a number of counties
and states to implement the Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives
Initiative. This Initiative focuses
on reducing lengths of stays in detention and on developing a range of
alternatives to detention and the adoption of an objective risk instrument to
structure decisions to place youngsters into those alternatives and into secure
detention. The Casey Foundation has
Crowding, unfortunately, is only one
of the detention issues
Responsibility for regulating these centers to ensure compliance with standards falls to both the Juvenile Justice Commission and the Department of Human Services, but the only real tool that either agency has to compel counties to improve conditions is to restrict admissions or close the facilities. Either action could bring a county’s juvenile justice system crashing to a halt. The recently created Office of the Child Advocate has statutory authority to ensure that youths who are detained are treated appropriately. Exercise of such authority should be actively encouraged. Further, advocacy to encourage counties at the bottom of the ladder to improve conditions should be actively pursued.
· Variation in Decision Making
A hallmark of juvenile justice is that key decision makers, particularly judges, are given wide latitude in decision making. This is to facilitate individualized justice that allows for decisions to be informed by the unique circumstances of the alleged act, the youth, and his or her family and social situation. Supporters of a separate system of justice for juveniles typically believe that such decision making latitude is critical to the success of a system truly designed to makes decisions in the juvenile’s best interests. The reality, unfortunately, is that such unfettered discretion is a double-edged sword. While it allows for individualized justice, it also allows for decisions to be influenced by the personal attitudes and values of the decision maker. It also allows for adolescents with similar personal and family situations who have committed similar acts to be treated in very dissimilar ways.
The reality is that juveniles in some counties are at greater risk of commitment than juveniles in other counties, controlling for all legal and extra-legal factors that can legitimately influence a judge’s decision, such as severity of the delinquent act, past offenses, and prior placement history. When the Juvenile Justice Commission was evaluating the feasibility of creating an alternative to commitment program, it collected extensive data using an objective risk and needs assessment instrument as a way to evaluate whether there was a group of committed adolescents who might be more appropriately served in community-based programs. That data illustrate that some counties reserve commitments for adolescents that present high levels of risks and needs but that other counties commit adolescents with very low levels of risks and needs.
It is time to acknowledge this problem and begin a dialogue about how best to resolve it. Child advocates are often concerned that simply raising the issue could lead down the path to structured decision making that would make it impossible for judges to base decisions on individual circumstances. This is not an inevitable outcome. Previous research by the Juvenile Delinquency Commission found significant variability between counties in the availability of programs and services that make the dispositional options authorized in the Juvenile Code real options for judges. It means nothing to a judge who has a youngster before her that has stolen to support a drug habit that the Juvenile Code authorizes her to send that child to a residential drug treatment program if there is no program or no bed in an existing program to actually send the child to. If this problem persists and is impacting probability of commitment, we should address it.
The current state of affairs, where decisions about children can be as strongly influenced by where a child is from as they can be by the child’s behavior and personal and family situation, is untenable, and should not be accepted, if only for the equal protection issues that it raises. Given the recent significant increase in commitments at a time when juvenile crime generally, and violent juvenile crime specifically, are decreasing, it is even more imperative that we begin a public dialogue about this problem.
· Disproportionate Minority Confinement
A related issue is that the fact
that the overwhelming majority of adolescents ordered to the care and custody of
the Juvenile Justice Commission are African-American or Latino. In 2002, 67 percent of the adolescents
admitted to the Commission were African-American and 18 percent were
Latino. These figures have not
varied significantly for decades.
The problem has been extensively
studied. The New Jersey Supreme
Court Task Force on Minority Concerns’ Juvenile Justice Subcommittee began
looking at the problem in the 1980s.
That Task Force commissioned a study by Dr. Carl Pope, one of the
country’s pre-eminent scholars in this area to study
The Commission found empirical evidence indicating that juveniles from single family households were more likely to be committed and concluded that this factor negatively impacted minority youth, who were more likely to come from single parent families. This research also led to the Commission’s study of program and service availability. That study revealed significant variability between counties, as mentioned. It also found an inverse relationship between programs and services and need. Large, urban counties with large numbers of court-involved youths had the fewest resources for judges to call upon when sentencing youths before them. Since the greatest numbers of minority youth reside in large, urban counties, this resource disparity negatively impacts minority youth.
When the Governor’s Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee made sweeping recommendations for improving the juvenile justice system in 1995, several key recommendations that ultimately became law were included with the expectation that, if implemented, they would begin to ameliorate this serious problem. Specifically, it was expected that by empowering youth services commissions with statutory responsibility for planning for at-risk and court-involved youth and by creating the State/Community Partnership Grant Program, funded at $10 million annually and divided between counties based on need, resource disparities would begin to disappear. By creating a “level playing field” with respect to the programs and services available to family court judges, irrespective of what vicinage they were in, it was anticipated that disparities between counties in the handling of court-involved youth would diminish or even disappear. This has clearly not happened.
The creation of the funding stream for alternatives to placement with the Juvenile Justice Commission, the State Incentive Plan, was also done with the expectation that such alternatives would reduce disproportionate minority commitment rates. While it is still too early to tell if that program is having such an impact, the problem will clearly take a much more concerted effort on the part of both State and local officials. Recently the Chief Justice called for a study of the problem and the judiciary, the Attorney General, and Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Commission are working with local youth service commissions to examine this problem.
This is a serious problem that has
been studied extensively. What is
most needed is a concrete strategy for addressing this problem. Certain steps can be taken
immediately. The Juvenile Justice
Commission must approve county youth service plans before the county receives
its share of the State/Community Partnership Grant Program funds. The Commission can make inclusion of a
strategy to reduce minority confinement a requirement and make plan approval
contingent on a credible plan. The
Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Advisory Committee, a
gubernatorially appointed group that oversees dissemination of the federal
juvenile justice funding received by
History tells us that major reform initiatives come about once every decade. With the last major reform having occurred in 1995, it’s about time for another reform initiative. The current focus on reforming child protective services provides an excellent opportunity to take a holistic view of child and adolescent services and begin to break down some of the artificial barriers between child-serving systems that impede the delivery of effective services for all deserving children. I hope that we seize this opportunity and I look forward to continuing to work with you to make these changes possible.
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