Coalition seeks end to solitary confinement for N.J. juvenile offenders

Nine civil rights and children’s groups are asking New Jersey to stop using solitary confinement to punish youth, a practice experts say can be socially and psychologically damaging.

New Jersey now allows state and county facilities to isolate a child in his or her cell for up to five days as punishment for a variety of behaviors including talking while in line.

Alexander Shalom with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey says putting children in solitary damages their social and psychological development.

“Adolescents are especially sensitive to the serious harms that result from being deprived of normal human contact,” Shalom said Monday. “These harms make it harder for the Juvenile Justice Commission to achieve its mission to help youthful offenders rehabilitate themselves and reintegrate into our communities.”

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The juvenile offenders can be locked up in a small room for just about anything, according to Sandra Simkins with the Children’s Justice Clinic at Rutgers.

“Solitary is the go-to response for any rule violation and implementation is completely arbitrary. So cursing or obscene language can get you four hours or four days,” she said. “It seems to depend on the guard.”

Not only does the punishment harm minors, Simkins said, it ends up wasting state resources.

“When a juvenile judge sends a kid to the Juvenile Justice Center) they want him to get help, not to be further damaged by harmful practices,” she said. “New Jersey spends $136,000 a year per kid to rehabilitate children at the JJC. Solitary makes them worse.”

The state has agreed to discuss the complaint and could make a decision within 60 days about changing its rules.

Five states now ban solitary confinement of juvenile offenders and legislation to end it is pending in six others.

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