In 1999, New Jersey’s State Legislature modified the juvenile waiver law, which made it much easier to move a child to the adult court system. The initial hope was that trying cases involving youth in adult court would improve public safety. Legislators were not aware at that time that the peak in juvenile violent crime in New Jersey had already passed and juvenile violence would continue to decline. They also did not have the benefit of recent adolescent brain research or newly available juvenile crime and waiver data, both of which raise significant questions about the assumptions underlying the law. In all, the last 12 years have shed important light on how this law has worked in practice and the need for it to be changed to achieve its original purpose.
A child who is placed in an adult prison is five times more likely to become a victim of rape than an adult offender and is twice as likely as a child in the juvenile system to re-offend. Understanding that juvenile waiver pushes young people towards a lifetime of criminal activity and does not acknowledge the remarkable potential for rehabilitation of our youth, NJISJ commissioned the nation’s most comprehensive study reviewing a state juvenile waiver law. The results of this study, which we released in November 2011, are sobering. As currently applied, waiver in New Jersey has an overwhelming disparate impact along racial, gender and geographic lines. African Americans, males and youth in suburban areas are disproportionately waived up to adult court. NJISJ’s comprehensive report highlights these disparities in detail and provides recommendations to improve the juvenile waiver process and decrease the rampant disparities in access to justice. NJISJ used this report to support an amicus brief to the New Jersey Supreme Court. NJISJ has also begun drafting legislation reform to empower judges to hold children accountable as children, where appropriate.