New Jersey is a national leader in a rapidly advancing juvenile justice reform movement.  The state is locking up thousands fewer young offenders, while safely addressing their needs in their communities.  Leaders from other states have been visiting New Jersey to learn these methods – but there appears to be little awareness by the citizens of this state.

That was the main message at a statewide juvenile justice forum held today that brought together national, state, county and community leaders, who explored additional ways to bring youth safely back to their communities, where they are more likely to get the assistance they need to avoid future criminal involvement.

“Research clearly supports the approach of treating youth in their own communities – not in large institutions miles away from home,” said Bart Lubow, director, Juvenile Justice Strategy Group at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore. “New Jersey is a success story in reducing reliance on county detention. The state is poised to take the next step forward. We can do things differently, continue to save money and not compromise public safety.’’

Laurence Steinberg, professor of psychology at Temple University and co-author of Rethinking Juvenile Justice, pointed to research that demonstrates youth are different from adults and should be treated that way by the justice system.

“The research shows that kids should be in communities, not in jails,” Steinberg said. “Developmentally based laws and policies make it possible for young people who have committed crimes to grow into responsible adults, rather than career criminals. In the end, this approach better serves the interests of justice, wastes less money and is better for youth than the harsh and ineffective policies of the last generation.”

Both national leaders in juvenile justice reform also noted that research shows that locking juveniles up in institutions is much more costly than caring for them in their communities, and returns no greater results in lowering recidivism.  In fact, research has demonstrated that children who are waived to adult, criminal court and serve prison sentences are more likely to re-offend, more quickly and more violently than those who are maintained under the jurisdiction of the juvenile court.

New Jersey once had 17 detention centers, but with diminishing arrests and fewer children being detained, many detention centers have closed and consolidated with neighboring detention centers, which has resulted in millions in savings.

The presenters and panelists discussed the possibility that these savings provide an opportunity for re-investment to a safer and more efficient system of community-based services for kids.  Several other states have moved in this direction, including Missouri (“The Missouri Model”), Illinois (“Redeploy Illinois”) and Ohio (“Reclaim Ohio”).

Discussion highlighted the fact that the “get tough” policies of the past several decades contributed little to public safety and took a significant toll on the tax paying public.  It gradually blurred the distinction between the juvenile justice system and criminal justice, often resulting in juvenile justice being used as a “training ground” for careers in the adult, criminal system.  The panel emphasized the need for a truly separate system of justice for children, grounded in adolescent development research.

Acting Attorney General John J. Hoffman offered opening remarks at the forum, while state officials participated in a panel discussion to identify specific ways New Jersey could move closer to that goal.

The panel was moderated by Superior Court Judge F. Lee Forrester and Dr. Jennifer LeBaron, Director of Local Programs and Services at the Juvenile Justice Commission.  Judge Forrester and Dr. LeBaron are Co-Chairs of the New Jersey Council on Juvenile Justice System Improvement.   The panel included Judge Glenn A. Grant, Administrative Director of the New Jersey Courts; Kevin M. Brown, Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Commission; New Jersey Public Defender Joseph E. Krakora; Allison Blake, Commissioner of the Department of Children and Families; as well as Lubow and Steinberg.

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Advocates for Children of New Jersey co-sponsored the forum, with funding through the New Jersey Governor’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (JJDP) Committee, in partnership with the New Jersey Council on Juvenile Justice System Improvement, the Future of Children Journal, a collaboration of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, and the Brookings Institution.