New Jersey has adopted a system that is too punitive and insufficiently focused on rehabilitation and helping young people transition successfully into adulthood. Despite the body of research that consistently highlights the harmful effects of youth incarceration, New Jersey continues to rely heavily on youth prisons. While the state has made significant progress in reducing the pretrial detention through its Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), still far too many youth, disproportionately youth of color, are incarcerated in facilities that closely resemble the adult prison system. Understanding our current juvenile justice system is essential to transforming it:
Children Are Different
Incarceration harms our youth in a number of ways, including by impeding the natural “aging” out of delinquent behavior that occurs as a young person matures. Studies have shown that, during adolescence, the brain undergoes a “rewiring” process that is not complete until around twenty-five years of age. During this brain maturation, youth are more likely to engage in risky activities and less likely to be able to judge the consequences of their actions. These findings indicate that juvenile offending is a reflection of psychological immaturity rather than innate criminality or culpability—i.e., such behavior will naturally decline as a young person matures. Research also demonstrates that incarceration may have a detrimental impact on young people’s development, by exposing them to harmful settings which may inhibit their maturation in the short term, leading to the potential for future offending and decreased public safety. By contrast, studies have shown that community-based programs are better-equipped to provide intensive services that account for the developmental stages of our young people as they age out of antisocial behavior.
According to Justice Policy Institute’s 2014 report, Sticker Shock: Calculating the Full Price Tag for Youth Incarceration, “the average costs of the most expensive confinement option for a young person”—based on a survey of state confinement expenditures in 46 states—is $148,767 a year. For New Jersey, youth incarceration is more expensive: as of 2014 New Jersey spends up to $196,133 to incarcerate one young person each year (the twelfth highest expenditure of the forty-six states reporting). This outrageous investment in a system that fails children, their families, and our communities is also financially wasteful.
As reported in the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice report, Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child, while fewer youth are being incarcerated, staggering racial disparities persist. In New Jersey, Black kids are, incredibly, 24.3 times more likely to be committed to a secure juvenile facility than their white counterparts even though Black and white children have similar rates of offending. New Jersey has the third-highest Black-white commitment disparity rate in the nation: of the 289 young people currently committed to a state juvenile facility, three-quarters (73%) of them are Black. These stark racial disparities reflect racially discriminatory policy decisions and practices that determine which kids get sentenced to youth prisons.
New Jersey must disrupt the pipeline that diverts children out of the classroom and into the criminal justice system. The school-to-prison pipeline is a system that encompasses zero tolerance policies, as well as the practice of funneling minor infractions into the criminal justice system. Under this system, students of color are more harshly punished and more often pushed into the justice system than their white peers.
Conditions of Confinement
Too many young people are incarcerated in New Jersey. Their sentences are lengthy (often mirroring the same terms imposed on adults) and they are rarely granted parole. Those who are incarcerated are far too often housed in overly restrictive environments and denied age-appropriate services focused on treatment and healthy development. Incarcerated youth are routinely denied access to: quality education; special education, where appropriate; social services and rehabilitative services; transition services, including work training and college planning; quality mental health treatment; and quality health care.
Incarcerated youth have difficulty maintaining close ties to their families and support networks because they are often placed in facilities that are a great distance from their homes and communities, and which are not easily accessible by public transportation. Other communications systems – such as telephones, email, and video visitation – are regulated in such a way that they are often neither accessible nor affordable.
Juvenile prisons can be brutal places: violence and brutality from guards and other residents or inmates can be pervasive. Security devices, such as shackling, are overused and isolation has historically been used as a punishment of first resort rather than an intervention of last resort.