N.J. juvenile justice reforms emphasize rehabilitation over punishment

A recently passed New Jersey law has set new standards for the sentencing and confinement of convicted juvenile offenders.

People ranging from legal experts to concerned parents have long questioned whether harsh punishments are appropriate for alleged juvenile offenders. Due to differences in emotional development and maturity, adolescents often violate the law for different reasons than adults and respond poorly to punishment. Fortunately for juveniles in Hackensack, lawmakers have recently passed legislation that establishes less stringent sanctions for people convicted of juvenile criminal charges.

Taking age into account

The Paterson Times reports that the new law seeks to support the overarching goal of the juvenile justice system, which is to rehabilitate rather than punish. Under the law, the following changes are now effective:

  • Adolescents who have been charged with most offenses can only be waived into adult court if they are at least 15 years old. Previously, children as young as 14 years old could be tried in adult court.
  • Juvenile offenders may not be transferred to adult facilities until they are 18 years old. In the past, adolescents could be transferred after the age of 16.
  • Juveniles cannot be held in solitary confinement for more than 10 days in any given month.
  • The number of consecutive days that a juvenile can be held in solitary confinement is restricted based on the juvenile's age. For example, juveniles who are ages 15 and under can't be confined alone for over two days.

According to WKXW News, one important reason behind these changes is the lack of maturity of the typical juvenile offender. Juveniles, who frequently are prone to aggression, strong emotions and short-term thinking, may be more vulnerable to the harmful effects of incarceration in adult facilities. Additionally, research suggests that sentencing that emphasizes rehabilitation may be more effective for most adolescents.

Potential for rehabilitation

Next to adults, adolescents may be more capable of changing their thinking, habits and risk of recidivism. For example, according to ABC News, research shows that violent tendencies manifest most around age 16; however, up to three-quarters of juveniles who exhibit such tendencies later outgrow them. These changes may reflect the fact that many juvenile offenses occur largely due to developmental differences in the juvenile brain.

The region of the juvenile brain that oversees logic and reasoning is less developed than the part of the brain that is responsible for feelings and impulses. Therefore, adolescents have less capability to control their emotions, reason objectively, resist peer pressure and keep sight of long-term consequences. When juvenile offenses do occur, they often reflect these underlying issues, which is why harsh punishment may not be merited in many cases.

Protecting accused juveniles

Although state lawmakers have taken a positive step by reviewing the standards for juvenile punishment, adolescents who are convicted of crimes in New Jersey can still face serious consequences. Juveniles over the age of 14 can be charged as adults for certain serious juvenile offenses, such as assault, kidnapping or murder. Additionally, regardless of how juveniles are tried, convictions may have long-term impacts on their ability to pursue education, find gainful work and succeed as adults.

It's crucial for the families of criminally accused juveniles to take these potential consequences seriously. Consulting with a defense attorney is an advisable step for families who wish to reduce the risk of outcomes with harmful short- and long-term impacts.