Missed Opportunities: Youth Diversionary Programs in New Jersey, An ACLU-NJ Report

January 31, 2018

Diversionary program. It’s a technical term for something portrayed in old movies: a parent arrives at a police station to pick up their child who, instead of being arrested and charged with a crime, has just been given a stern warning by police and an opportunity to make amends.

Unfortunately, in New Jersey, these opportunities for reconciliation are used relatively infrequently, and youth are pushed into the juvenile justice system instead. During a 2016 discussion on criminal justice reform, Camden County Police Chief Scott Thomson lamented the declining use of stationhouse adjustments in the City of Camden. He acknowledged — and the social science research confirms — that jailing a child is “one of the most damaging things you can do.” Limiting children’s contact with the juvenile justice system overwhelmingly decreases the risk of later criminal justice involvement. In childhood, generally considered a time of learning and experimentation, the parts of the brain that govern good judgment and impulse control are still immature. Children sometimes behave in ways that could be interpreted as criminal, such as shoplifting and loitering. Rather than prosecuting children for these behaviors, New Jersey should enhance its systems of support for them. Our state should expand programs and tools that divert children from the criminal and juvenile justice systems.