A new poll indicates a large majority of state residents want youthful offenders rehabilitated, not incarcerated.

Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice says 85 percent of the 500 New Jerseyans polled agreed that the youth justice system should focus on prevention and rehabilitation, rather than locking up juvenile offenders.

"These poll numbers show is that there is a desire to see money that goes to youth prisons, to see that reinvested in community-based programs for youth," she said. "Children are different. Research into the brain development of young people shows that your brain is not fully formed until maybe your mid-20s. And so what we do not want to do is, we do not want to give children an adult punishment, which is what prison really is."

Weill-Greenberg said it costs New Jersey $200,000 annually to house one juvenile inmate: "This is a policy that has really failed us on a moral footing, as well as a fiscal footing."

"We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to incarcerate one young person, when providing them intensive 'wrap-around' services in a community-based program, programs that have actually been shown to be more effective in reaching youth and putting them on the right path, than those that operate at a fraction of the cost of our youth prisons."

New Jersey's youth incarceration rate has been dropping for years, however.

According to data released this month by the NJ Office of the Attorney General
Juvenile Justice Commission, 262 juveniles were incarcerated as of April 7. That's down from 312 at the same time a year ago, and 352 a year before that.

In mid-April of 2011, 516 juveniles were incarcerated.

"In New Jersey, this trend is credited in part to the state’s participation in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, a national project led by the (Annie E.) Casey Foundation." Advocates for Children of New Jersey wrote in 2013, in response to data showing a 53 percent drop in youth incarceration over 13 years.

"While this initiative focuses on reducing the number of youth confined in county detention facilities, it has also resulted in far fewer youth being committed to longer-term incarceration in the Juvenile Justice Commission’s facilities. New Jersey is the only state to be designated a national model for detention reform as part of this initiative," the group continued.

Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of Advocates for Children of New Jersey, said at the time the drop was "arguably, one of the most significant successes to benefit New Jersey youth over the past decade."

Of those polled, 77 percent also want states to reduce ethnic disparities that see more black youth in the system.

"Almost 75 percent of the kids who are committed to a facility are black, even though it has been shown that black and white kids commit offenses at about the same rate," Weill-Greenberg said.

Joe Cutter is the afternoon news anchor on New Jersey 101.5.

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