The evidence developed during a year-long investigation by the OCA challenges the Judiciary, the Juvenile Justice Commission and the Department of Human Services, which are the primary state agencies charged with the care of these troubled children, to end quickly the illegal detention of mentally ill youths in overcrowded facilities for extended periods of time.
Sadly, the OCA’s findings do not come as news to the Office of the Public Defender (OPD). Nor, do we suspect, are they a surprise to anyone who has worked in the juvenile justice system for any length of time.
Since 1967, the OPD has provided legal representation to children facing delinquency charges. OPD represents almost all of the children currently incarcerated. In working on behalf of its young clients, OPD attorneys have had to confront the problems described in the report on a daily basis. Indeed, perhaps the greatest challenge of an attorney working on behalf of a juvenile client, mentally ill or not, is to find an alternative to detention or incarceration so that the precisely right placement can make all the difference in a child’s future.
OCA’s report suggests that New Jersey is no exception to the nationwide findings that show that one in five detained youths are estimated to suffer from serious emotional disturbances. It was, of course, appropriate for the OCA to fully explore and illuminate this issue.
There is another inequity of New Jersey’s seriously flawed juvenile justice system. Four out of five detained youths are not mentally ill, but remain in juvenile detention centers because of a lack of social services and the unavailability of less restrictive, alternative treatment facilities.
The majority of the remaining 80 percent of detained youths struggle with developmental disabilities, special needs and other poverty-driven afflictions. Their unmet needs are no less severe.
The incarceration of these children raises important questions that need
to be answered by the Judiciary, the Juvenile Justice Commission, the
Department of Human Services, the Office of the Child Advocate, and all
of us who care about these children.