New Jerseyans are no strangers to the extravagant use of their hard-earned tax dollars. Before Bridgegate, there were many other eyebrow-raising expenditures, like the $2.4 million addition to Ocean County’s juvenile detention center — added shortly after the inception of a state program designed to help children stay out of detention centers. The center, designed to accommodate up to 30 juveniles, now houses only 12. Neighboring Monmouth County experienced such a drop in residents that officials ordered the facility’s closure in 2010, sending its 25 remaining minors to Middlesex County. Yet while many New Jersey residents are rightfully upset about a bridge closure, it’s hard to get mad about a sudden reduction in juvenile crimes. But is that actually what’s happening?
Not exactly — it’s New Jersey’s approach to handling juvenile crime that is evolving. In 2004, New Jersey teamed up with the Annie E. Casey Foundation to participate in a new program entitled Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. The program’s focus is on helping disadvantaged children remain in the community while receiving appropriate rehabilitative support. New Jersey was one of the first states to participate in this program, which is designed to focus on rehabilitative approaches for minors who do not pose a serious danger to society. A spokeswoman for the state Juvenile Justice Commission notes that ten years ago, juvenile detention centers were severely overcrowded. Now, some centers are closing because it’s not cost-effective to keep them operating at such a low capacity.
There are many alternative approaches to handling juvenile crime in New Jersey. Crimes like disorderly persons offenses related to harassment or cyberbullying are often handled on a municipal level, through arbitration or other methods. If a child convicted of a non-violent crime has a strong family support system, they may be best served outside of the juvenile detention system. Home detention and monitoring with electronic ankle bracelets are options. Out-of-home placements may include a government-run children’s shelter, or a drug rehabilitation center. Ocean County has been pioneering secure rehabilitative programs for juveniles. Most juvenile drug rehabilitation centers today do not have the legal right to detain a patient in treatment against his or her will. The secure rehabilitative program option circumvents that obstacle to treatment. Minors in New Jersey today have many options to juvenile detention. A criminal defense attorney can advocate for a more rehabilitative solution that can help prevent future offenses.