After meeting with top officials with New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission and the Attorney General’s Office Monday, an American Civil Liberties Union leader said he is optimistic the state will act on the group’s call to limit solitary confinement for juveniles in state and county detention facilities. The meeting came as the ACLU and a coalition of religious, social services and children’s organizations filed a petition asking the state to change its rules on confining juvenile offenders. "I feel really encouraged by the meeting," said Alex Shalom, policy counsel for the state ACLU.
"I think that JJC and the attorney general are eager to have a frank and open discussion — both about how we can address solitary confinement of juveniles as well as broader issues of how we can help juveniles re-enter society." New Jersey currently allows for juvenile offenders to be locked away in their rooms for up to five days as disciplinary punishment, or for much longer if safety is at risk. They are not allowed to bring anything into the cell — not even a book — and are typically allowed out only for hygiene, the groups said.
The groups are calling on the state to ban solitary confinement as a punishment and limit its use for safety reasons to 18 hours. State officials indicated they are willing to consider reforms. "It was productive, and it was a good meeting," Sharon Lauchair, a spokeswoman for the Juvenile Justice Commission, said. "We welcomed everybody’s input." Shalom said a second meeting will be held within a month. The state runs four secure juvenile facilities that can hold more than 600 youths. Residents range from ages 12 to 23, though most are teens. About a dozen counties operate their own detention centers, housing about 4,500 juveniles in 2011. Lauchair said the commission isolates juveniles in their cells as a means of discipline, as well as "for medical reasons, for their own protection, or for the protection of others."
The commission maintains no publicly available data that would show how many times solitary confinement is used. Sandra Simkins, co-director of the Rutgers Children’s Justice Clinic, said more than 60 percent of the clinic’s clients have been kept in isolation. "From our perspective, solitary is the go-to response for any rule violation," Simkins said after a press conference in Trenton Monday. "It doesn’t matter what the kid does, they go to solitary first." The commission first limited disciplinary "room restrictions" to five days in 2005.
Most states permit the solitary confinement of minors, and the American Correctional Association, which sets standards and accredits detention facilities in the United States, also allows for the practice. Critics say solitary confinement can worsen or cause mental health issues. "Disassociation, depression and anxiety, for starters, and it can lead to self-mutilation, psychosis," Craig Levine, the policy director for New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, said. "You can lose your mind."