As juvenile youth offender population falls, shuttered facilities will follow

On a gray and rainy day, the high gates of the Union County Juvenile Detention Center reaffirm the notion of separateness, juveniles on the inside, families and the rest of the community – outside. But as Union County prepares to close the facility, hope for a different approach to juvenile justice is rising as the juvenile detention population continues to fall.

Since 2011, the number of young people incarcerated dropped from 546 to 274, a 50 percent drop. But officials say they still spend too much – more than half the budget for juvenile justice, over $63 million – on what they call “secure care facilities.” About 36 percent goes to alternatives like halfway houses. Less than $6 million is spent on parole and training.

“I didn’t figure out how important school was until I came to the New Jersey Training School,” said student Alfuquan.

Last week more than 60 students, including Alfuquan, graduated with high school diplomas from the New Jersey Training School at the Juvenile Justice Commission facility in Monroe.

“I don’t think I failed when I was home,” he said in a speech to the graduating class. “I just made a lot of mistakes and bad choices. But since coming to New Jersey Training School, I have been able to accomplish so much more. A wise man told me, if I don’t stand for something, I will fall for anything.”

Attorney General Gurbir Grewal celebrated at this year’s New Jersey Training School graduation by touting the fact that 37 percent of youth offenders over the past year have been assigned to community residential home settings rather than the secure facilities.

“You can see by the numbers that we’re trying to reduce by finding alternatives to incarceration, finding community placements, developing other programs,” he said. “We went from somewhere over 2,000 to 176 this year, 176 residents in secure-care facilities, and we want that number to go down even further. We want to divert people early so they can graduate in a normal setting. That’s our aspiration and that’s what we’re working hard to do.”

There’s a ways to go. Youth of color are still held in secure facilities 26 percent more frequently than whites. Special needs youth still have a much tougher time getting services, and the state still spends too much on these facilities. Closing Union County’s center will save the county over $20 million. But Grewal says the arrows are pointing in the right direction, showing that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, especially when the pound of cure can break a budget.

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