When the Community Foundation of New Jersey heard the story of L.B., a young man who experienced severe neglect in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, and others like him, its Leadership Committee decided to act.
With a grant to the Post-Disposition Advocacy Project at Rutgers Law School-Newark, the Community Foundation in 2014 brought legal services to more incarcerated youth who so desperately need rehabilitation.
And it has paid off in a major way.
The attorney who works with the youth (whose salary was paid through the grant) was able to rectify numerous wrongs and start to build a case for reforming the juvenile justice system such that it truly rehabilitates youth – for their benefit and that of the communities to which they will someday return.
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Her work, and that of a second attorney paid for by the Community Foundation, its fundholders, and our friends at the Fund for New Jersey helped pave the way for new legislation passed in August 2015 that:
- Raises the minimum age at which a child may be prosecuted as an adult from 14 to 15, narrows the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult, and amends the standard governing such decisions to reflect the continuing maturation of young people through their mid-twenties;
- Requires due process, including representation by counsel, before a young person who is confined in a juvenile facility can be transferred to an adult prison; and
- Eliminates the use of solitary confinement as a disciplinary measure in juvenile facilities and detention centers, and places time limits on the use of solitary confinement for reasons other than punishment, such as safety concerns.
But here’s why it’s just the beginning.
The attorneys who work with these incarcerated youth report that at New Jersey’s juvenile detention facilities, getting around the word “punitive” is easy as ever. Minor infractions still earn these young people a spot in solitary confinement with dubious justification.
So what’s happening here?
The law changed, but the culture didn’t.
New Jersey’s juvenile justice system remains fundamentally punitive. And we know from experience and data that this approach doesn’t work.
Juvenile justice, at is core, is meant to be rehabilitative. It must be structured and implemented in a way 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).
So how do we change the culture?
We keep building our case. Just as the attorneys we fund have unconvered the wrongs that led to this initial round of legislation, we will need them to continue shining a light on the areas in which New Jersey’s juvenile justice system is failing young people and how it can be improved.
None of this will be possible without the impassioned support of participating fundholders and donors. To join the Community Foundation in its critical juvenile justice reform work, click below. Be sure to also learn about our Changemaker Projects.