Avoid putting young offenders in detention, AG tells police in NJ

Colleen O'Dea, Senior writer | December 4, 2020 | Social
New guidelines say to involve parents, issue warnings and look to dismiss charges if possible
Credit: Office of Attorney General/Tim Larsen
Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s directive takes effect Jan. 11, 2021

Starting next month, New Jersey police and prosecutors should consider using any of a number of methods to avoid placing a juvenile offender in detention under a directive issued Thursday by the state attorney general.

The goal of the new order from Gurbir Grewal, which takes effect Jan. 11, is to minimize the number of youth behind bars, a longtime goal of youth and social justice advocates. New Jersey’s adoption of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) in 2004 led to an 80% decrease in the number of young people in detention centers. Still, according to the latest JDAI report, 2,317 youth were admitted to detention in 2019, a nearly 3% increase over the prior year.

To further reduce that number, Grewal is advising law enforcement to divert juveniles from the justice system or away from secure detention facilities whenever possible while still considering public safety. Young people who commit violent crimes may still need to be detained but low-level offenders may benefit more from alternatives.

“This directive helps us take another step towards rehabilitating young people by diverting them away from formal court proceedings to community, family, and school support systems, while also improving outcomes for those who do enter the juvenile justice system,” Grewal said in a statement announcing the directive. “If we can turn a youth away from the juvenile justice system, we know they stand a much better chance of turning their life toward success in the long run.”

Veronica Allende, director of the state Division of Criminal Justice, said the directive replaces prior guidance from the state to “maximize the use of diversionary programs that will promote rehabilitation of young people.”

Five ways to prevent detention

The directive specifies when and how police and prosecutors should use five methods to prevent detention. These are:

  • Police can issue a curbside warning when observing a minor act of delinquency;
  • Officers can use “stationhouse adjustments,” in which the juvenile and a parent or guardian go to the police station to discuss an alleged offense and develop an appropriate resolution, including restitution, that is written into an agreement;
  • When charges are filed, police and prosecutors can use complaint-summonses instead of complaint-warrants when this does not jeopardize public safety so that a juvenile can stay at home until an initial court appearance;
  • Prosecutors can seek pretrial detention for juveniles in limited circumstances, with the presumption against holding youth in custody in most cases;
  • Prosecutors are encouraged to continue to evaluate cases to determine if they can dismiss charges or refer youthful offenders to diversionary programs more conducive to rehabilitation.

“The attorney general’s directive is an important step towards a more compassionate approach to law enforcement’s engagement with youth,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of Salvation and Social Justice. “The directive affirms the immaturity and humanity of young people by encouraging more curbside adjustments and other alternatives to unnecessary system involvement … It is critical that officers and departments heed the spirit intended in the directive.”

NJ has highest racial disparity in youth incarceration

While the state’s initiative on detention alternatives has led to a reduction in overrepresentation of youth of color detained, Black and Hispanic juveniles still make up a much larger proportion of those in detention centers than in the population as a whole — 90.8% of those in detention are youth of color, compared with 49.7% of the population. New Jersey has the highest Black-to-white youth incarceration disparity in the nation, according to Retha Onitiri of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. The institute launched an effort three years ago to get the state to close its youth prisons.

Onitiri applauded another section of the directive that requires police to report on curbside warnings and stationhouse adjustments as bringing greater accountability to juvenile detention decisions.

“It is key that we understand how front-end diversionary practices, such as stationhouse adjustments, are employed in the jurisdictions most impacted by the youth justice system,” she said.

This is the latest effort by the Murphy administration at emphasizing compassion over punishment for youth who get in trouble with the law. Earlier this year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed a bill (S-48) that made changes to the juvenile justice code that emphasizes alternatives to detention and minimizes the length of sentences for young offenders.