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New Jersey Chosen for National Effort to Improve Legal Defense for Indigent Youth

Office of the Public Defender, Rutgers Law Schools receive MacArthur Foundation grant to lead initiative to reform juvenile justice in New Jersey

December 08, 2008 – 

New Jersey has been selected to participate in the Models for Change Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network (JIDAN), an initiative of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation created to pursue reforms that strengthen and enhance juvenile indigent defense systems. The state will receive $100,000 this year with additional funding available for successive years, and joins California, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and Washington to form the eight-state network. The grant will allow the team of the Offices of the Public Defender along with Rutgers School of Law in Newark and Rutgers School of Law in Camden to collaborate with juvenile justice stakeholders in New Jersey to examine and to develop models for representation of indigent juveniles at all stages of juvenile justice proceedings. Models for Change is MacArthur’s $120 million national initiative to reform juvenile justice across the country.

“The lack of adequate representation for indigent youth was identified as a key barrier to developing fair and effective juvenile justice systems,” said MacArthur President Jonathan Fanton. “This new Action Network will help accelerate the pace of change by ensuring that juveniles receive the legal protections to which they are constitutionally entitled. With innovative leadership in the four states selected, the Network will help reshape juvenile justice systems across the United States to increase the likelihood of a young person’s success, while making communities safer and stronger.”

“New Jersey is one of a small number of states with a statewide public defender system,” said New Jersey Public Defender Yvonne Smith Segars. “In juvenile delinquency cases, staff attorneys represent children from the point of assignment through disposition and the appeal process. Children are particularly vulnerable and this grant provides New Jersey with the opportunity to examine and develop creative models to build the capacity to enter cases earlier and to ensure that dispositional orders of the court are fulfilled thereby furthering the rehabilitative goals of the delinquency system.” 

According to Sandra Simkins, director of the Rutgers School of Law–Camden Children’s Justice Clinic, current systemic service gaps in the New Jersey justice system create barriers to treating, rehabilitating and caring for children and promoting community safety most effectively. “In New Jersey, public defender representation for juveniles is not provided uniformly at the initial detention hearing to determine whether a child remains in custody or returns home, and at the post-dispositional stage where the child’s rehabilitative services are implemented, monitored and enforced,” says Simkins. “Moreover, despite the fact that 57% of the children in Juvenile Justice Commission facilities are eligible for special education services, there is no mechanism in place to help them receive the education that they need to succeed when they complete their court processes.”

“Never before has a major state university with a geographic presence in all regions of a state, as Rutgers has in New Jersey, committed to working with a statewide juvenile defense system to expand its client-serving capacity,” says Laura Cohen, a clinical professor in the Urban Legal Clinic at Rutgers–Newark law school. “Here, we have the unique opportunity for two nationally recognized law schools, located in ideal target counties with the highest percentages of children in the juvenile justice system, to devote their resources to achieve this goal. “In addition,” says Cohen, “participation in the Network will enhance the symbiosis of the clinics and the defenders. Law students will enjoy unparalleled opportunities to work toward systemic change, while the OPD will expand the legal representation accorded the children it serves.” 

The eight-state Juvenile Indigent Defense Action Network will be coordinated through the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC). The network will actively engage juvenile defenders, policymakers, judges and other key stakeholders in designing strategies to improve juvenile indigent defense policy and practice. The JIDAN work will progress through a series of strategic innovation groups know as SIGS. The Network has selected Access to Counsel and the role of Juvenile Defense Resource Centers in building capacity for juvenile defenders as initial areas of focus.

About the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation
The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. For more information please visit www.macfound.org.

About Models for Change
The Models for Change initiative is an effort to create successful and replicable models of juvenile justice system reform through targeted investments in key states. With long-term funding and support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, Models for Change seeks to accelerate progress toward a more rational, fair, effective, and developmentally appropriate juvenile justice system. Models for Change now has three ongoing Action Networks (Mental Health, Disproportionate Minority Contact and now Juvenile Indigent Defense) consisting of twelve states that join the existing core states for a total of 16 states. www.modelsforchange.net

About the National Juvenile Defender Center
The National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) is a non-partisan, mission-driven organization created to respond to the critical need to build the capacity of the juvenile defense bar and to improve access to counsel and quality of representation for children in the justice system. NJDC offers a wide range of integrated services to juvenile defenders, including training, technical assistance, advocacy, networking, collaboration, capacity building and coordination. NJDC works to ensure excellence in juvenile defense by promoting justice for all children.