Statewide study shows underuse of state-mandated youth diversionary programs, especially for children of color

New Jersey dramatically underuses statewide programs intended to divert young people from the juvenile justice system, a new report released by the ACLU-NJ today found. This statewide inquiry, Missed Opportunities: Youth Diversionary Programs in New Jersey (PDF), revealed that Black children in New Jersey disproportionately lacked opportunities to make use of these programs, an especially disturbing trend in light of New Jersey’s highest-in-the-nation Black-white disparity for both youth and adult incarceration.

“If we’re going to reduce the number of people we put behind bars, we need to prevent involvement with the criminal justice system in the first place. That starts in childhood,” said Portia Allen-Kyle, Pratt Criminal Justice Transparency Fellow at the ACLU-NJ. “There’s good reason to make wider use of diversionary tools like stationhouse adjustments: because they work. Unfortunately, that’s not happening, and every arrest of a young person that could have been addressed through diversion stands as a missed opportunity.”

Missed Opportunities: Youth Diversionary Programs in New Jersey (PDF) sheds light on the two programs law enforcement can use to avoid criminalizing New Jersey’s children: stationhouse adjustments and curbside warnings. Rather than arresting children for offenses like breaking curfew, loitering, or trespassing, officers can give children opportunities to avoid a record if they agree to certain conditions or promise to stay out of trouble for a certain period of time.

Through public records responses from 17 of New Jersey’s 21 counties, the ACLU-NJ discovered troubling racial disproportionality in the use of stationhouse adjustments. While Black young people made up 28.3 percent of juvenile drug arrests in 2015, they made up only 11.3 percent of those who received stationhouse adjustments for drug, alcohol, and tobacco offenses. White youth, on the other hand, made up 69.6 percent of juvenile drug arrests but received over three-quarters of stationhouse adjustments for drug, alcohol, and tobacco offenses in 2015.

Other key findings of Missed Opportunities: Youth Diversionary Programs in New Jersey include:

  • Of 5,239 stationhouse adjustments the ACLU-NJ tracked from 2014 to 2016, more than two-thirds resulted in kids being successfully diverted from the juvenile justice system. However, despite these largely successful outcomes, more than 40 percent of municipalities among the 17 counties that provided data didn’t utilize them. During this same period, more than 60,000 juvenile arrests were made, according to estimates.
  • Statewide, officers made more than 1,400 juvenile arrests for curfew and loitering violations in 2015 alone, and more than 60 percent of these young people were Black. However, in the 17 counties studied by the ACLU-NJ, only 13 stationhouse adjustments were given for these exceedingly low-level violations – and 10 of the 13 youths were white.

“Diversionary programs for children could make a critical impact in ending mass incarceration, but New Jersey law enforcement rarely gives children that option, leading to tragic, lifelong consequences,” said Amol Sinha, Executive Director of the ACLU-NJ. “When police turn children over to an unforgiving juvenile justice system and separate kids from their families at the most vulnerable time in their lives, it sends a message that they’re irredeemable in the eyes of authority. Particularly in light of gross inequities based upon a child’s race and zip code, law enforcement must ensure that every child can take advantage of alternatives to the juvenile justice system following an encounter with police. The future depends on it.”

Among its recommendations, Missed Opportunities: Youth Diversionary Programs in New Jersey urges that:

  • The Office of the Attorney General issue a new directive that makes the use of a stationhouse adjustment the default option for addressing non-serious crimes committed by juveniles.
  • Law enforcement agencies electronically submit quarterly reports that are more comprehensive and transparent.
  • Law enforcement agencies institutionalize diversionary programs and expand training on youth issues for all law enforcement officers.

View the report online. (PDF)

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