Institute Releases Bring Our Children Home: Building Up Kids Through New Jersey's Youth Services Commissions



Report Focuses on Role of Youth Services Commissions in Building Up New Jersey’s Kids Instead of Incarcerating Them

Newark – The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice today released Bring Our Children Home: Building Up Kids Through New Jersey’s Youth Services Commissions. A pdf of the report can be found here.

The report, the third in a series focusing on proposed solutions to New Jersey’s broken and racially discriminatory youth justice system, sheds light on New Jersey’s Youth Services Commissions, the county bodies responsible for planning and funding youth services ranging from prevention to reentry services. The report proposes that by strengthening our state’s Youth Services Commissions (YSC) structure through increased funding, community engagement, transparency, and accountability, we can help create a community-based system of care that will keep our young people in their communities and out of youth prison. To date, the State has failed to adequately prioritize and fund YSCs.

“Many people are unaware that Youth Services Commissions even exist, much less how much responsibility they have for the well-being of New Jersey’s youth,” said Ryan P. Haygood, President & CEO of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “If adequately funded, supported and utilized correctly, Youth Services Commissions can play a vital role in providing community-based programming for New Jersey’s young people to keep them in their communities and schools, and keep them out of the youth justice system.”

New Jersey’s broken youth justice system disproportionately harms Black and Brown children. A Black child is 30 times more likely to be locked up than a white child, even though they commit most offenses at similar rates. The state’s youth facilities are half-empty, yet New Jersey plans to build three new youth prisons.

“Instead of building new prisons that would act as an incentive to fill beds with our children, the State should be building up our kids with community-based programming on the front end that keeps kids in their communities,” said Andrea McChristian, Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “Yet, New Jersey has failed to prioritize Youth Services Commissions, which are designed to do just that.”

Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has a county YSC responsible for planning and funding the county’s youth prevention, diversion, detention, disposition, and reentry programs and services. YSCs are tasked with informing the public about the unique youth justice issues faced by county youth. They are a vital tool for ensuring that each young person in a given county has access to a variety of programs and services to keep them out of the youth justice system, is provided with diversionary resources if they do get ensnared in the system, and is supported with effective reentry supports upon release. YSCs receive funding from the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission (JJC).

While the State has increased the amount it spends to incarcerate our young people by a shocking 370 percent in the last two decades, it has increased funding for YSCs by only 50 percent. Further undermining YSC effectiveness, YSCs have been plagued for years by a lack of community engagement, transparency, and accountability.

“I am very encouraged by the Institute’s report and recommendations,” said Juanita Ashby, a youth justice reform advocate and member of the Institute’s 150 Years is Enough campaign to transform youth justice. “As someone who cares deeply about our at-risk youth, I have made it a point to attend some YSC meetings in Mercer County and witnessed some of the problems addressed in the report. Most of the people at the meetings were not community members like me who have a pulse on the issues young people face. It was also difficult to get to the meetings, which took place during the work day. Changes to scheduled meeting times were not always posted."

The Institute’s new report offers six policy proposals for making YSCs more effective and addressing some of the concerns expressed by community members like Ashby:

  • A reassessment of the JJC’s YSC funding formula;
  • A mandate that at least two YSC seats be held by a youth and a parent directly impacted by the youth justice system;
  • A mandate that YSCs meet in a neutral, community-based location, during the weekend or evening, to maximize community participation;
  • A scheme to incentivize YSCs to submit timely triennial plans and updates to the JJC, and timely approval of them;
  • A mandate that each YSC create a website that provides all relevant information; and
  • A mandate that YSCs meet monthly and hold biweekly subcommittee calls

Improving New Jersey’s Youth Services Commissions is one component of the New Jersey Youth Justice Transformation Act (S3701/A5365), historic legislation introduced in May as a result of the Institute’s advocacy. This legislation would also provide for closure of existing youth prisons; the assessment of existing facilities for their ability to serve as appropriate placements for youth transitioning out of prisons; the development of a plan for rehabilitative placements for youth who must be out of the home for public safety reasons; a racial disparities study; and, finally, a $100,000,000 lockbox fund to go toward effective community-based youth programs with a primary focus on the communities most impacted by youth incarceration. Some of this funding could be applied to reforming YSCs.

The legislation is sponsored by New Jersey Senators Sandra B. Cunningham (District 31) and Ronald Rice (District 28), and Assemblypeople Shavonda E. Sumter (District 35), Linda S. Carter (District 22), and Britnee Timberlake (District 34). It is co-sponsored by Senator Nellie Pou (District 35), and Assemblypeople Thomas P. Giblin (District 34), Jamel Holley (District 20), and Verlina Reynolds-Jackson (District 15).

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