On any given day, more than 50,000 young people are incarcerated and confined in juvenile justice systems across the country. Instead of getting the support they need in their local communities, these young people are funneled through a system that is too often unsafe, costly, and infected with striking racial and ethnic disparities. In New Jersey, even though youth of all races commit non-violent crime at about the same rate, Black youth are 24 times as likely as white youth to be committed to secure facilities.
Just 20 years ago, criminologists John J. DiIulio and James Fox championed a pernicious, and wildly inaccurate “super-predator” narrative about youth violence that landed hundreds of thousands of kids in youth prisons around the country, even as crime among youth dropped precipitously.
This “super-predator” designation for kids has had devastating consequences, particularly for kids of color. Nearly every state responded to it in some way, including lowering the minimum age to try children as adults, and ultimately incarcerating 250,000 young people.
In New Jersey, though the number of incarcerated kids has decreased significantly in the last 10 years, partly a result of powerful advocacy by the Institute and its partners, nearly 90% of kids incarcerated in New Jersey are Black and Latino.
Since 2013, the Institute has played a central role in organizing Youth Justice New Jersey (YJNJ), formerly the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Reform Coalition (NJJJRC), a statewide coalition of research, advocacy, academic, and direct service organizations and representatives dedicated to producing better outcomes for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
YJNJ’s work is divided into three distinct areas of interest: (1) decarceration; (2) conditions of confinement; and (3) the school to prison pipeline.
Although a relatively young organization, YJNJ has already significantly changed the juvenile justice system in New Jersey. Among other successes, YJNJ was instrumental in the passage of S2003, a new law that raised the minimum age at which a child may be prosecuted as an adult; narrowed the list of offenses that can lead to prosecution as an adult; limited the use of solitary confinement as a punitive measure in juvenile facilities; and provided due process protections to young people facing administrative transfer from youth to adult prisons.
As the convener of YJNJ, the Institute, working in close collaboration with its coalition partners, will launch and lead YJNJ’s 2017 decarceration campaign to: (1) further reduce the number of youth incarcerated in New Jersey’s juvenile justice facilities; (2) decrease racial and ethnic disparities; and (3) redirect resources towards effective community-based restorative alternatives to incarceration for youth. To achieve these goals, the Institute will collaborate with the Juvenile Justice Commission to develop feasible decarceration reform, draft a data-driven report to support decarceration efforts, engage with youth and their families impacted by the juvenile justice system, and develop a fiscal strategy to inform how New Jersey can reallocate funding to community-based programs to keep our children home.
Taking the next step after New Jersey’s many successes in the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, YJNJ is launching a Youth Decarceration Campaign to further reduce the number of youth incarcerated in New Jersey, decrease racial and ethnic disparities, and invest in community-based alternatives to incarceration for youth.
The importance of this work is underscored by Kalief Browder’s tragic story. In 2010, a 16-year-old named Kalief was accused of stealing a backpack. Based on nothing more than the vague recollections of a single witness, Kalief spent the next three years of his young life incarcerated in the notorious adult penitentiary, Riker’s Island, enduring unspeakable violence at the hands of other inmates and guards.
An estimated two of Kalief’s total three years in Riker’s were spent in solitary confinement.
When his case was finally dismissed three years after he was imprisoned—with no trial, no conviction, and no apologies—Kalief was sent home to attempt to reassemble his life as best as he could. Although he would never recapture his teenage years, he worked to earn his GED and enrolled in community college classes. Indeed, for a little while, Kalief seemed to be doing well.
But Kalief ultimately could not escape the trauma that he endured while incarcerated, particularly those two years that he spent hungry and alone in a 12 x 7 foot cell in Riker’s Central Punitive Segregation Unit. After several failed suicide attempts and several weeks spent in mental health facilities, Kalief hung himself with an air conditioning cord at his parent’s home at the age of 22.
Kalief’s tragic story of profound neglect and injustice begs the question: What time is it? The answer is that it is time to ensure that no other child is subjected to the abuse that Kalief endured. It is time to do what must be done to advance juvenile justice reform and protect our kids.
In 2015, recognizing the devastating psychological effects of solitary confinement, New Jersey became the 21st state to ban the practice in juvenile facilities as part of a historic reform bill advanced by the Institute and its YJNJ partners. This important new law will help New Jersey protect children against the shameful set of circumstances that led Kalief Browder to take his life. The historic reform bill also includes a number of other significant changes:
Building on this important juvenile justice reform work, the Institute and its YJNJ partners are positioning the state to be a model for the nation—with the goal of shifting New Jersey’s overreliance on juvenile correctional facilities to a more holistic rehabilitative approach that provides age-appropriate treatment and access to rehabilitation. We are focused on ensuring that our children stay where they belong—in school and in the community—not behind bars.