Committee hears testimony on state’s juvenile justice system

Reforming our juvenile justice system was an issue before an Assembly Committee on Law and Public Safety that considered the treatment of both juvenile convicts and their victims.

There were not many debaters on the bill to expand crime victims’ rights, but the state public defender’s office did take issue with a clause in the bill that would allow victims to sit in on post-conviction private civil proceedings for sex offenders.

“The underlying reason why these are closed proceedings is really twofold. The first reason deals with privacy; much of what is discussed during these post-conviction hearings relates to the registrant’s psychiatric, psychological and medical records. A lot of times we’re getting documents only under HIPAA authorization to discuss in court, and that’s why these are closed off. Again, also much of what’s discussed is conversations that a registrant has with his or her therapist, things like that,” said Fletcher Duddy, the chief counsel of the Special Hearings Unit at the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender.

“I think victims should be there,” said Assemblyman Erik Peterson. “I think the victims should probably be there at every step of the way if they want to be there. It’s only fair. To get one side of a story isn’t always reliable.”

“But the reality is that injects a punitive aspect, a punitive measure, into the post-conviction Megan’s Law realm,” Duddy replied.

The committee voted to release the bill to expand crime victims’ rights. It also got an earful from advocates on how best to continue improving the juvenile justice and detention system.

“The total population of confined youth in New Jersey has been cut by half between 1997 and 2010. But while the overall number of incarcerated young people has sharply decreased, racial disparities in New Jersey’s youth incarceration system have exploded illuminating a sobering picture of the many reasons why the current system of youth incarceration is a failed experiment,” Andrea McChristian, associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

“So now when we’re talking about the closure of the secure facilities, Jamesburg primarily, I think that should happen. I would agree with the Institute for Social Justice that any realized savings should be reinvested into a continuum of care for youth — both in terms of children who are already in trouble with the law, but also as a prevention,” said Mary Coogan, the vice president of Advocates for Children of New Jersey.

“As part of that transformation, New Jersey must one, build a youth justice system that addresses a chain of racial disparity, prioritized rehabilitation and incorporates meaningful community input. Two, develop recommendations for investing in the communities most impacted by youth incarceration and put every cent of the anticipated $20 million in closure cost savings into effective community-based programs. And three, create a youth justice system that’s built around a community-based system of care,” said Coogan.

The committee also voted to release a resolution to set up a commission to review life imprisonment for juvenile offenders.