Healing Circles Help New Jersey Youth in Custody

Posted December 14, 2021
By the Annie E. Casey Foundation
Fifteen people, all in matching black T-shirts, pose for a photo in a classroom-like setting. Some are peope of color, a few are white. Most are men, a few are women. Some individuals are smiling, others are not.

The New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission expanded the Inside Circle program to recently paroled youth

New Jersey’s Juve­nile Jus­tice Com­mis­sion (JJC) has embarked on a new strat­e­gy to break the cycle of recidi­vism and vio­lence for young peo­ple in its facilities.

Since May 2019 — with sup­port from the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion — the JJC has worked with an orga­ni­za­tion called Inside Cir­cle to imple­ment an inten­sive restora­tive process for young peo­ple com­mit­ted to state cus­tody. This approach uti­lizes heal­ing cir­cles to help youth con­front past trau­ma, learn pos­i­tive cop­ing strate­gies and begin to rebuild trust with loved ones and the com­mu­ni­ty. Trained facil­i­ta­tors lead each cir­cle, and they have a spe­cial con­nec­tion to the work: expe­ri­ence in street cul­ture and the crim­i­nal jus­tice system.

For the ini­tial group, JJC staff iden­ti­fied young peo­ple who had com­mit­ted sig­nif­i­cant vio­lence in the com­mu­ni­ty and demon­strat­ed vio­lent behav­ior while in cus­tody. Par­tic­i­pa­tion was strict­ly voluntary.

JJC’s ear­ly results for these cir­cles — informed by sur­veys of staff and youth and an analy­sis of infrac­tion records — are encour­ag­ing. They indicate:

  • Dis­ci­pli­nary infrac­tions decreased 45% among par­tic­i­pants as the youth learned how to bet­ter com­mu­ni­cate and reg­u­late their emotions.
  • When com­pared to peers with no heal­ing cir­cle expe­ri­ence, par­tic­i­pants were more like­ly to report reduced stress, stronger con­nec­tions with adults and hope for future success.
  • JJC staff observed improve­ments in par­tic­i­pants’ behav­ior and out­look as well as their efforts to pos­i­tive­ly engage with staff, peers and programming.

In these cir­cles, I learned how to express my emo­tions ver­bal­ly,” past par­tic­i­pant Jacques B. told the nation­al Coun­cil of Juve­nile Jus­tice Admin­is­tra­tors in Octo­ber 2021. Speak­ing about Inside Circle’s facil­i­ta­tors, Jacques said: These guys real­ly helped me look at life differently…After join­ing the group, I had a pur­pose after com­ing home. They gave me an idea of what a pur­pose was.”

Trans­form­ing care for youth in custody

Heal­ing cir­cles are based on a group ther­a­peu­tic approach used to help mil­i­tary vet­er­ans. Their report­ed impact on youth in cus­tody — reduced aggres­sion, increased hope and stronger con­nec­tions — under­score the val­ue of relat­able facil­i­ta­tors and pro­gram­ming that pro­motes heal­ing and resilience.

Work­ing with Inside Cir­cle through the JJC’s con­tin­ued part­ner­ship with the Annie E. Casey Foun­da­tion, we are wit­ness­ing remark­able trans­for­ma­tions in young peo­ple as they work togeth­er through these heal­ing cir­cles to process their pain and trau­ma, build a com­mu­ni­ty of sup­port and find hope and con­nec­tion,” says Jen­nifer LeBaron, act­ing exec­u­tive direc­tor of the New Jer­sey Juve­nile Jus­tice Commission.

The young peo­ple expe­ri­enc­ing youth cor­rec­tions in New Jer­sey and else­where are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly and over­whelm­ing­ly youth of col­or. Youth and young adults in cus­tody deserve the oppor­tu­ni­ty to heal from harm inflict­ed on them and address harm they have com­mit­ted on oth­ers,” says Tanya Wash­ing­ton, senior asso­ciate with the Casey Foun­da­tion. The Foundation’s sup­port of the Inside Cir­cle pro­gram­ming is part of its work to ele­vate the stan­dard of care for youth in cus­tody, even as states, coun­ties and cities move away from the youth prison model.

New Jersey’s series of firsts in youth justice

The Casey Foun­da­tion has part­nered with JCC for more than a decade on juve­nile jus­tice reform, includ­ing its effort to shift young peo­ple from large cor­rec­tion­al set­tings to small­er, ther­a­peu­tic facilities.

New Jer­sey was the first juris­dic­tion to make a state-lev­el com­mit­ment to JDAI® and imple­ment the approach in every coun­ty statewide. Now, New Jer­sey — with the Casey Foundation’s sup­port — is the first state to bring the orga­ni­za­tion and its approach to juve­nile facilities.

Next steps include heal­ing at home

To date, 46 youth have par­tic­i­pat­ed in heal­ing cir­cles while in state cus­tody and the approach has left JJC impressed. So impressed, in fact, that the com­mis­sion has announced plans to expand its Inside Cir­cle pro­gram­ming to include recent­ly paroled youth.

Watch a video on ele­vat­ing care for youth in custody

Read about the momen­tum build­ing in states to end the youth prison model

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