Newark, NJ — As Black History Month begins, leaders from New Jersey’s faith community are raising their collective voices to call the extreme racial disparities that exist in New Jersey’s youth prisons a “moral crisis.” The disparities, which were highlighted in a new report released by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, reflect that Black youth, incredibly, comprise nearly 75% of those committed to state juvenile facilities.
“In New Jersey, incarceration is the default for too many young people, particularly Black children,” said Ryan P. Haygood, President and CEO of the Institute. “In far too many cases, Black youth are not given the latitude to make mistakes that all children make and learn from those mistakes. We are thankful to be joined by New Jersey’s leading faith-based voices who seek to change that unacceptable reality.”
Black and white young people engage in similar offenses at about the same rates overall, but New Jersey’s Black youth are disproportionately incarcerated in youth prisons.
"The racial disparities in New Jersey’s youth prisons highlight a moral crisis in our state,” said Rev. Charles Boyer of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Woodbury. “People of faith and of good will must come together to end the systemic assault on our most vulnerable children.”
Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, a champion of juvenile justice reform, joined the faith leaders in their call to action.
"In order to allow an opportunity to succeed in the future, we must continue to eradicate the disparities in our prison system where almost three-quarters of all youth committed to juvenile facilities are African American,” said Ms. Sumter. “It is our responsibility to work collaboratively to ensure that a young person's mistake does not eliminate redemption and they are afforded the opportunity to thrive in our State."
Assemblywoman Sumter and Rev. Boyer were joined by leaders from an array of faiths: Rev. Sara Lilja, Director of the Lutheran Episcopal Advocacy Ministry of New Jersey and the chair of the Board of Directors of the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey; Reverend Timothy Levi Jones of Newark’s Bethany Baptist Church; Rabbi Jesse Olitzky of Congregation Beth El in South Orange; and Pastor Terry L. Richardson of the First Baptist Church of South Orange.
“Our faith is rooted in the teachings of our Torah that each person is made in the Image of God,” said Rabbi Olitzky. “The rhetorical question by Cain at the beginning of Genesis -- ‘Am I My Brother’s Keeper?’ -- then applies to all of humanity. When we see such racial disparity among incarcerated youth in our state, we are commanded to act. We must be keepers of all of our brothers and sisters, and pursue justice to end such extreme racial disparity in our prisons and specifically, among juveniles.”
As the Institute’s recent report on racial disparities shows, even as the number of confined youth in New Jersey has decreased by more than half, extreme racial inequalities persist within the juvenile justice system.
“Black History Month should be so much more than talking about how Black people overcame the evil of slavery and how we’ve managed to continue to survive and thrive in the face of racial disparities,” said Rev. Timothy Jones, Senior Pastor Bethany Baptist Church in Newark. “This month, as we are reminded of our great history, reminded that not only do our lives matter but that they’ve always mattered and have always been an integral part of the fabric of the American project, we are also reminded of the work left to be done in dismantling this new but much too old Jim Crow of black youth incarceration.”
"The racial disparities in the Institute’s report are a call to action for people of conscience across the state,” added Rev. Lilja. “We have a moral obligation to care for all of God’s children and ensure that all children have an opportunity to succeed.”
As the Institute report explains, despite numerous diversion and incarceration alternative programs in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, Black children are less likely to be diverted, and more likely to be incarcerated.
“We applaud the legislature and the Juvenile Justice Commission for the reforms that have already been implemented,” said Haygood. “But these numbers show that more remains to be done to reduce these shameful racial disparities.”