Even as a task force he created mulls ways to improve the state’s juvenile justice system, Gov. Phil Murphy has signed into law a significant reform of incarceration and parole policies that advocates say is needed to better serve youth and reduce racial disparities in the system.
Murphy has been aggressive in signing a host of measures meant to give some dignity to those who are incarcerated and help former inmates successfully reintegrate into society, including by expunging some former crimes. He also called for swift action in this legislative term on recommendations by the Criminal Sentencing and Disposition Commission, including an end to mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenses involving drugs or property.
Reforms had largely been focused on adult incarceration, however, until Murphy earlier this month signed S-48, which makes a number of changes to the juvenile justice code to emphasize alternatives to, and minimizing the length of, detention for youth offenders. It also eliminates fines and monetary penalties and changes both the length of post-incarceration supervision and how parole decisions are made — all factors that had kept some from being able to move on with their lives.
“This bill moves New Jersey forward on the path to reforming our country’s overly punitive, racially disparate juvenile justice system,” said ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha. “Mandatory minimums, along with fines and fees imposed on families, can particularly wreak havoc on the lives of low-income juveniles and their families. This law acknowledges that neither should have a place in sentencing decisions for young people.”
No need to wait
Murphy had already created the Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey, which held the last of three “listening sessions” last Thursday. But there was no need to wait for the task force’s report, expected within the next several months, to implement “positive change,” said Laura Cohen, a law professor and director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers Law School in Newark.
“The task force will now take the new reality of the law into account and, I’m sure, issue recommendations that have to do with the implementation of the bill,” she said. “But the bill is, I think, consistent with the goals of the task force.”
The reforms go into effect in 10 months.
New Jersey has been cited as a leader in an effort known as Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI), which has reduced the number of youths detained in the state. According to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, the number of youths in state custody dropped by 85% over the last 15 years.
But the principles of JDAI — including objective risk assessments to guide incarceration decisions and ensuring that detentions are as short as necessary — have not been codified so that those involved in all stages of the justice system follow them. They also have not helped with the problems involving racial disparities and recidivism in the juvenile justice system.
For instance, the latest data from the state Juvenile Justice Commission show that black youths made up about 68% of those involved in the justice system as of last Friday, compared with 13% who were white. By contrast, black youths make up less than 15% of New Jersey’s under-18 population, while experts say white and black juveniles offend at similar rates.
And Cohen said the overall recidivism rate for juveniles on exiting the system was 85%. While it’s hard to compare states because their youth justice systems are different, Cohen said New Jersey’s rate is “on the high side.”
Changing ‘antiquated’ justice system
Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic), a main sponsor of the bill, said the reform was two years in the making and included input from advocates, judges, experts and others.
“This law is meant to build a fairer, more just and less racially biased juvenile justice system,” she said. “Currently, if a juvenile gets caught in our antiquated justice system they can spend decades trying to get out. This law makes it less likely for a juvenile caught in adolescence to spend a lifetime in the justice system.”
One of the major changes in the legislation eliminates fines and other monetary penalties as part of a sentence. Cohen said that these fines, which can reach $3,000 for a single count of drug possession, can dog an offender well into adulthood and exacerbate racial and ethnic disparities in the system.
“These are children, who do not have a source of income, who, even if they’re working, these are really almost unimaginable amounts for them,” she said. “When wealthy children, who are more likely to be white, receive financial penalties, their parents pay it off and then … they’re extricated from the system. Children who don’t have money, who are more likely to be children of color, don’t have parents who can pay these penalties for them, don’t have sources of income. And so these monetary penalties remain hanging around their necks like an anvil for decades.”
The bill also eliminates mandatory incarceration for some offenses — for instance, the previous requirement that a juvenile convicted of certain crimes related to motor vehicle theft or eluding a police officer be locked up.
It also transfers the responsibility over parole decisions from the State Parole Board to a panel comprising at least two members from the Juvenile Justice Commission and one from the parole board. While juvenile parole does not work exactly the same as adult decisions, advocates say the percentage of youth serving their maximum sentence has steadily increased over the last 10 years and is now approaching 70%. A spokesman for the State Parole Board was unable to confirm that on Tuesday.
Cohen said that rate occurs even though juveniles typically see a parole board quarterly and that body has the authority to release them at any time during their sentence, which specifies a maximum term but not a minimum.
Under the new law, the three-member panel would have to agree unanimously on whether to release a juvenile prior to the end of their sentence. Cohen said that the law sets clear standards for the board to use in deciding when to grant parole.
Lingering consequences of ‘technical violations’
That panel will also be responsible for setting parole conditions that are tailored to each individual, including any post-incarceration supervision. Current law requires that a juvenile receive a term of post-incarceration supervision equal to one-third of the sentence of incarceration. This has led to situations in which an adult in his late 20’s spent five years on parole and then had to complete several more years of supervision mirroring the conditions of parole.
“There were frequent violation proceedings brought against young people … for what we call technical violations,” Cohen said, citing as examples a missed appointment with a parole officer, nonpayment of fines or failing a drug test. “They’re not new criminal violations, and they (young people) ended up being re-incarcerated because of those violations.”
The new law allows the panel to impose a term of post-incarceration supervision only if it is deemed necessary to help the juvenile’s rehabilitation and reintegration into society, and this term can be no longer than six months to a year.
New Jersey State Parole Board chairman Samuel J. Plumeri, Jr. said he is not sure exactly how that new parole process for juveniles will work. In general, he said, parole board members consider many factors — prior offenses and the likelihood of re-offending, what a person has done while incarcerated and plans for after their release — when determining whether to release an individual on parole. He also said parole officers are not looking to send a person back to prison for minor infractions, but are trying to help the individual succeed in society.
Cohen said that under the new law, post-release supervision for juveniles is to be supportive —providing help finishing school, getting a job, finding a place to live and other assistance.
Finally, the law requires the Juvenile Justice Commission to collect, record, and analyze data regarding incarcerated juveniles and use that to help inform future actions. It also must publish on its website the criteria that are used to determine whether a juvenile is granted parole and to provide this information to every juvenile who is sentenced to a term of incarceration.
“This is a huge step forward to build on gains in juvenile justice reform across New Jersey,” said Mary Coogan, vice president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “While young offenders should be held accountable for their actions, the goal is to return them to their communities, equipped with the skills they need to stay out of trouble and mature into productive adults. To do this, we need to construct a juvenile justice system that is truly therapeutic rather than punitive.”
Click this link to see NJTV News coverage of Murphy signing the reform bill.