New Jersey Takes Detention Alternatives Statewide
By Mary Branham, CSG Managing Editor
When New Jersey saw its juvenile detention populations rise at a time when arrests were declining, state officials knew something needed to be done.
“That didn’t make sense to us,” said Jennifer LeBaron, manager of research and evaluation for New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission.
And there were problems with the state of detention. In Camden County, for instance, a detention facility built for 37 juveniles hit a high population mark of 131, averaging a daily population of 95. So Camden County, along with four other counties, became part of New Jersey’s initial participation with the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, or JDAI, a program through the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
LeBaron, who serves as New Jersey’s JDAI coordinator, said the use of detention should correspond with the level of juvenile delinquency in a jurisdiction. That wasn’t happening in her state.
“We did have some clear indicators that it was a good time for detention reform,” she said.
New Jersey previously had been awarded grant funding to implement the detention reform project. A task force studied the use of detention in the state and developed recommendations.
“The sticking point was turning those recommendations into action,” LeBaron said.
At about the same time, the Annie E. Casey Foundation announced it was looking for state-level interest in JDAI. Until that time, JDAI had been a locally operated initiative—counties joined the initiative. New Jersey answered that call and is the only state replication site.
The program has changed the state of juvenile detention in New Jersey. Detention in those first five participating counties has dropped by more than 40 percent, according to LeBaron, and Camden County in particular has lowered its average daily juvenile detention population to 50 kids.
“On any given day, in those first five sites, there are 278 fewer kids in detention,” LeBaron said. “We’ve had a major impact on the number of kids held in secure lockup on any given date. The additional benefits are because it’s a data driven effort, we’re confident that the kids who are in detention are in fact the kids who need to be there.”
Like many jurisdictions around the country, LeBaron said New Jersey relied on detention for things like rule violations. Detention alternatives provide other tools to address noncompliance, she said.
Because of the program’s success in those initial counties, New Jersey sought to go statewide. The five counties that joined the initiative in 2006 have seen similar results, LeBaron said. Now, 12 of the 21 counties in the state participate in JDAI.
Even with the success, LeBaron said the state decided to take it slowly to ensure that each locality wants to participate and is successful.
“It’s really important in a locality that the key actors there come to the conclusion that they want to do this in order to make it successful,” she said. “There has to be strong leaders at the local level.”
That’s been one of the things that has helped the program succeed. The state also built an administrative infrastructure in LeBaron’s department and hired additional staff—called detention specialists—to work with local jurisdictions.
Legislators and executive branch staff saw the success and worked to get $4 million in the state budget to fund those positions and roll the program out to more counties.
Local jurisdictions are saving money because it’s cheaper to run the alternative programs than to run detention centers. But LeBaron said it’s important for the local jurisdictions to reinvest that money into the alternative programs.
“The goal is to ensure that at least some portion of saved dollars follow the kids into the community,” she said.
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