(PATERSON) – Democratic legislators Shavonda E. Sumter, Benjie E. Wimberly and Senator Nellie Pou, (all D-Bergen/Passaic) were praised in a morning press conference on Tuesday for their efforts in successfully getting landmark legislation that reforms New Jersey’s juvenile justice system enacted into law.
“Sending a child to an adult prison population has no rehabilitative benefits at all,” said Assemblywoman Sumter. “Where and how a young person serves their sentence can make a great difference in their choice to better themselves in the future or go on to habitually repeat their mistakes. With this new law, we can begin to mend the current system, help break the cycle of recidivism and give hope to those who never had it.”
The law, A-4299/S-2003, builds on previous reform efforts by focusing on the rehabilitation of young offenders in the justice system and the need to make communities safer. The new reforms include the process of transferring children and young adults from the juvenile system to the adult system, and improvements to confinement conditions in detention facilities.
“How a young person serves their time in prison is critical to reducing recidivism and crime in our neighborhoods,” said Assemblyman Wimberly. “A chance, hope, counselors, and access to addiction services are critical parts of the solution to successfully rehabilitating a young person in prison. We must remember that they are still children and in an adult prison, with its limited services, their needs are not adequately met. This new law now changes that.”
Senate President Steve Sweeney joined legal advocates, prosecutors, juvenile justice professionals, and Paterson Mayor Joey Torres in extending accolades for the work of Senator Pou and Assembly members Wimberly and Sumter on the legislation.
“I applaud Senator Pou, who has championed this reform through the legislature, for her hard work and dedication to improving the juvenile justice system in New Jersey, and Assemblywoman Sumter and Assemblyman Wimberly for their leadership efforts in gaining approval through the Assembly,” said Senator Sweeney (D-Cumberland/Gloucester/Salem). “For years, the juvenile justice system in New Jersey has been a leading example in efforts to ensure the wellbeing of children and young adults in detention centers. With this new law, we can further improve our system and help young people who have made mistakes get the second chance they deserve to turn their lives around.”
“Young people in the criminal justice system deserve the opportunity of rehabilitation in an environment that supports reform so that they can become contributing members of society,” said Senator Pou, who spearheaded the Senate version of the legislation. “Our major goal is not only to protect young individuals from disciplinary policies that could be harmful to their mental and physical health but also to make sure that those who commit serious crimes are held accountable. These are significant changes that will provide the services and guidelines to meet those goals and help these young people get back on their feet and to break the cycle of crime and imprisonment.”
The law raises the minimum age to waive a child into the adult court system from 14 to 15, allowing for a 60-day period to evaluate an individual’s case rather than 30 days. However, it will permit juveniles over age 15 to be waived to adult court for serious crimes such as murder, robbery, and kidnapping.
“These reforms will bring more fairness to the justice system,” said Mayor Joey Torres. “Young people have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and lead productive lives. This new law will help support them in these efforts at the same time it strengthens and improves the juvenile justice system.”
The new law also raises the age to transfer adolescents from juvenile detention centers to adult facilities, from 16 to 18, and includes notifying the individual of the transfer and reasons in writing.
“Senators Sweeney and Pou and Assembly members Sumter and Wimberly and all the supporters of the law worked tirelessly to strike an appropriate balance with these reforms,” said Judge Lee Forrester (retired). “This is how government reforms should work. This law will help make sure that young people are given a healthy environment where they can be proactive in their next stage of life. Reforming the juvenile justice system is a strong step in the right direction.”
The reform sponsors worked closely with the County Prosecutors Association, the Attorney General’s Office, the Juvenile Justice Commission and the Administrative Office of the Courts on the legislation.
“This new law strikes an appropriate balance in supporting juvenile offenders and their families as they rehabilitate their lives while ensuring those juveniles who commit adult-type crimes like murder can still receive adult sentences,” said Sean Dalton, Chief of the County Prosecutor’s Association. “We appreciate Senate President Sweeney and Senator Pou’s inclusion of the County Prosecutor’s positions and input into this process.”
In consultation with the Attorney General, the Juvenile Justice Commission will also establish a program to collect, record, and analyze data to keep track of juvenile waiver cases. The commission will publish and submit its findings biennially online and to the Governor and the Legislature.
“Although juveniles should be held accountable for their actions, the goal of the juvenile justice system is to return these youth to their communities equipped with the skills they need to stay out of trouble and mature into productive adults,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director, Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “These reforms are a solid step in achieving this outcome. ACNJ wants to thank Senator Nellie Pou for her leadership in working with all stakeholders to reach consensus on this important legislation.”
Additionally, the law imposes limits according to age on the amount of time a juvenile could spend in solitary confinement, known as room restriction in the juvenile justice system. It will also allow prosecutors to extend an individual’s sentence at a juvenile detention center, if requested, for up to three years.