Juvenile justice system being reformed in NJ
New Jersey is reforming its juvenile justice system, courtesy of a new law recently signed by Gov. Chris Christie.
The sponsors of the bill (S-2003/A-4299) assembled in Paterson on Tuesday for a press conference to hail the new statute.
"We're making sure that we are conscious of the lack of development which has been scientifically proven of a 14-year-old's maturity to go into an adult prison system, the risks of abuse by adults, including sexual abuse by going into an adult prison system," said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Paterson) who co-sponsored the assembly version of the legislation.
The law raises the minimum age to try a minor in an adult court from 14 to 15 years old unless the charge is a serious one such as homicide, kidnapping or robbery. The law also it raises the age when a child can be transferred from a juvenile detention center from 16 to 18 years old.
"We want rehabilitation for our juveniles who are committing crimes. We just want to make sure that we do it in a way that they can be improved to be a betterment for society," Sumter said.
On the Senate side, the measure was co-sponsored by State Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Paterson) who worked in conjunction with the County Prosecutors Association, the Attorney General's Office, the Juvenile Justice Commission and the Administrative Office of the Courts on the legislation. Sumter said she and Pou also toured three correctional facilities -- Yardville, Bordentown and the Essex County Detention Center -- to get a better understanding of how minors were treated behind bars.
"We really need to understand that in reality it is where the juvenile is ultimately sent to serve his or her sentence that will make the difference between a non-rehabilitated juvenile and a rehabilitated juvenile," said Pou. "The importance is giving them the ability to be rehabilitated so that they can return back to society with opportunities and become a productive member of society."
The law also imposes limits according to age on the amount of time a juvenile could spend in solitary confinement. In the juvenile justice system it is called "room restriction." It allows prosecutors to extend a person's sentence at a juvenile detention center, if requested by a prosecutor, for up to three years.
"We really have made an incredible change to our juvenile justice system," Pou said.
The Juvenile Justice Commission, in consultation with the State Attorney General's Office will also create a program to collect, record and analyze data to keep track of juvenile waiver cases. The commission will publish and submit its findings online and to the governor and the Legislature.
"I think that is going to be crucial and important because that would certainly keep us informed of what's actually happening within our system," Pou said.
According to the New Jersey Department of Corrections there were almost 4,000 inmates in New Jersey's three youth detention centers as of Jan. 1, 2013, the last year statistics were compiled:
- Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility (1,041);
- Garden State Youth Correctional Facility (1,776); and
- Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility (1,043).
The prison population went down from 2011 to 2013 according to a 2011 report which showed statistics on Jan. 1, 2011:
- Albert C. Wagner Youth Correctional Facility (1,335);
- Garden State Youth Correctional Facility (1,864); and
- Mountainview Youth Correctional Facility (1,154)
According to the website, 472 minors ages 14-17 were waived to adult court and sentenced to adult prisons in New Jersey from 2007-2015.