January 7, 2014
For L.B., an 18 year old in one of New Jersey’s juvenile detention centers, the severe laceration to his eyeball he received at the hands of a fellow young person in the center’s gym should have been the extent of his pain. But then he was sent to his room where he bled on the floor for a half hour. And once at the hospital, his aunt was initially refused visitation. And then after he returned to the center, he was kept in “medical isolation” for 23 hours a day for four months. By the end of the ordeal, L.B.’s initial pain had grown into a serious situation, calling into question the effectiveness of New Jersey’s juvenile justice system.
At the Community Foundation of New Jersey, we put heavy emphasis on seeking out critical and overlooked challenges such as these. And so when we learned about L.B.’s story (and others like it) and the work of the Post-Disposition Advocacy Project, we decided to act.
Our Leadership Committee moved quickly, deploying a $30,000 grant to support the Project’s work in providing legal representation to incarcerated youth. But now we need your help. Your contribution to this worthwhile effort – described in greater detail below – will allow us to ensure more of New Jersey’s incarcerated youth have legal representation and are treated according to the law.
Juvenile justice, at is core, is meant to be rehabilitative, structured and implemented to help young people recognize their errors, learn from their wrongs, and become productive citizens who are prepared to contribute to society.
Across the country, state governments have adopted this overall approach to juvenile justice, and on the federal level, the Supreme Court has affirmed it – most recently through abolishing the death penalty for minors (2005) and rejecting life sentences without parole for minors (2012).
Even with these advancements, however, the way sentences are currently enforced does not always lend itself to proper rehabilitation.
New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission (NJJJC) has noted its goal is “to lead the reform of the juvenile justice system in New Jersey” with the aim of proving “young people the opportunity to become independent, productive and law abiding citizens.”
Yet, in New Jersey, many examples of the treatment of incarcerated youth – ranging from inadequate provision of health care and restriction of free speech rights to isolation from family members and denial of access to information and education – point to the reality that sentence implementation has sometimes been more penal than rehabilitative. And this has come at the expense of helping a vital segment of our society become healthy and contributing members of their communities.
To close this the gap, provide legal representation, and improve conditions of confinement for incarcerated youth, in 2009 the Rutgers School of Law-Newark Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic and the Rutgers School of Law-Camden Children’s Justice Clinic partnered to form the Post-Disposition Advocacy Project, part of the New Jersey Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network (JIDAN).
“The project helps fill a gaping hole in the continuum of legal services available in New Jersey,” notes Laura Cohen, Clinical Professor of Law and Director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School-Newark. “When young people have a case pending before the juvenile court, they have a right to representation. Once they go into custody, that right ends, and young people are in facilities, often for many years, with no court oversight or monitoring and no access to counsel.”
Rutgers University notes that because of this, “young people, many of whom have substantial mental health, special education, and substance abuse treatment needs, are sentenced to multi-year terms in State custody with no court oversight and no monitoring of conditions of confinement or the provision of essential services to them.”
“Over the course of the entire project, we’ve “Over the course of the entire project, we’ve represented about 215 youth,” Cohen says, also noting that “[t]here are at this point somewhere between 350 and 450 youth in “secure care” – these are facilities for young people that look a whole lot like adult prisons.”
Working with clients across the state, the project advocates for policy and institutional reform in areas including:
- Educational Rights
- Solitary Confinement
- Voter Rights
- Free Exercise of Religions
- Freedom of Speech
- Privacy Rights
- Staff Misconduct
- Physical Disabilities
- Family Involvement
- Medical Care
- Modification of Disposition
- Transfer of Youth to Adult Prisons
- Access to Courts
- Parole Advocacy
Despite notable successes, however, the need remains great. “Our project is very small,” Cohen notes, “So we are largely staffed by law students who are enrolled in a clinical course. … They can handle one or two cases per semester.” Currently, JIDAN represents between 55 and 70 clients from 10 of New Jersey’s 21 counties. Meanwhile, hundreds of young men and women are in the state’s juvenile justice system.
The Community Foundation of New Jersey (CFNJ), through its Leadership Committee, has pledged $30,000 for the Post-Disposition Advocacy Project to provide legal representation for youth incarcerated in New Jersey’s juvenile institutions.
CFNJ’s funding has allowed the Project to hire a PART-TIME clinical fellow to handle a portion of the overwhelming workload. But now we need your help.
By supporting our work, you can help us ensure the Post-Disposition Advocacy Project has FULL-TIME support for its important work and more incarcerated youth are provided adequate legal representation.
Adequately serving the needs of incarcerated youth and helping ensure they are provided the services needed to prepare them for re-entry into society is a long-term effort that will require dedicated commitment. We appreciate any support you are able to provide and invite you to stay tuned as we take a closer look at juvenile justice issues this year and identify the best ways to make a meaningful, positive impact.