On January 13, 2020, the New Jersey Legislature approved a landmark bill (S48/A5586) that significantly reforms the law governing juvenile incarceration and parole. The bill was sponsored by Senators Nellie Pou, Shirley Turner, and Troy Singleton and Assembly Members Benjie Wimberly, Annette Quijano, Verlina Reynolds-Jackson, Valerie Vaineri Huttle, Gordon Johnson, Cleopatra Tucker, and Angela McKnight. 

The bill will improve outcomes for youth while still protecting public safety. Its key provisions aim to reduce unjustified incarceration, modernize and improve the parole process, and eliminate fines that can compromise a young person’s future. By establishing more objective decision-making standards, the bill should help reduce racial disparities among incarcerated youth in New Jersey, now the highest in the country.

With the passage of this bill, the New Jersey Legislature takes its place as a national leader in juvenile justice reform. This legislation builds on reforms that were first championed by Senator Pou in 2015 through legislation that restricted the circumstances under which youth may be placed in an adult prison, improved the procedural protections available to youth facing transfer to an adult prison, and eliminated the use of solitary confinement to punish young inmates. This next step follows the trend of aligning the juvenile justice system more closely with its avowed central purpose—to support young people in turning their lives around.

For years, the system has not served this purpose but has instead relied on ineffective and unjustifiably long periods of incarceration. The percentage of youth serving their maximum sentence has steadily increased over the last 10 years and is now approaching 70 percent. New Jersey also has extremely high recidivism. The current bill, which we urge Governor Murphy to sign into law, will help reverse these destructive trends by improving conditions for juveniles during and following their incarceration in a number of important ways:

  • The standards for granting or revoking parole are now more objective, transparent, and geared toward the juvenile’s successful return to the community.
  • The Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC) will now have joint responsibility, along with the parole board, for making parole decisions and establishing conditions for parole, giving youth a meaningful opportunity for early release.
  • Youth will no longer be subjected to onerous financial penalties, which often inhibit their successful reentry into society.
  • The sentencing laws will limit when a youth may be incarcerated and ensure that incarceration is used only as a last resort.
  • The mandatory supervision period formerly imposed on all incarcerated youth after they completed their term in custody will now be discretionary, time-limited, and used only to support a juvenile’s rehabilitation and reintegration.
  • The JJC will now collect and report on data about the incarcerated youth population and what happens to them while they are in custody, and it will provide every juvenile’s counsel and the juvenile court with an opportunity to weigh in on eligibility for parole.

These reforms are a significant step towards creating a more rehabilitative and effective juvenile justice system in New Jersey. They must be implemented in a manner that will help reverse the state’s soaring rates of parole denials, recidivism, and racial disparities.

Natalie J. Kraner, Senior Public Interest Counsel for the Lowenstein Center for the Public Interest, and Laura Cohen, Director of the Criminal and Youth Justice Clinic at Rutgers University, played an integral role in the development of S48/A5586 and in advocating for its passage, in close cooperation with the Juvenile Law Center, the New Jersey Office of the Public Defender, and the ACLU-NJ.  

“The system currently in place exacerbates racial disparities by relying too heavily on incarceration. This legislation will bring New Jersey’s Juvenile Code in line with best practices by creating more transparency and predictability in the juvenile sentencing and parole process, promoting incentives for positive youth behavior and early release, and supporting the juvenile’s eventual successful reintegration into society,” explains Kraner. 

“By implementing essential changes to juvenile sentencing and parole, this groundbreaking legislation will continue New Jersey’s progress toward a more effective, safe, and equitable youth justice system. We applaud the efforts of Senator Pou and the other sponsors in achieving these reforms,” says Cohen. 

“We are delighted that New Jersey is leading the way on the elimination of burdensome financial penalties,” said Jessica Feierman, Senior Managing Director of Juvenile Law Center. “Fines imposed on youth exacerbate poverty, heighten racial disparities, and increase recidivism. Other states should follow New Jersey’s lead to create more equitable and effective justice systems.”

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