NJ Bill Would Mean 'Historic Transformation' For Youth Prisons

Patch reports:

It costs $289,000 a year to incarcerate a juvenile offender in New Jersey, researchers say.

NEWARK, NJ — It's a bill that "puts the interest of kids above building prisons for them." And if the New Jersey Youth Justice Transformation Act becomes law, it will usher in a historic transformation in the way the state treats its juvenile offenders, supporters say.

Earlier this week, a coalition of elected officials and community activists announced their support of A-5365/S-3701, a legislative effort that would make fundamental changes to the youth prison landscape in New Jersey. (Read the full bill here)

According to the Newark-based New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ), the potential law would mandate the closure of the Juvenile Medium Security Facility in Bordentown.

It would also set official closure deadlines for the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Monroe, also known as Jamesburg, and the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility in Bordentown, also known as Hayes. Former Gov. Chris Christie announced the planned closure of both facilities before he left office. Both remain open.

The bill would also:

  • Require New Jersey to develop a comprehensive closure transition plan encompassing provisions for both youth and workers
  • Require that New Jersey's eleven non-secure youth facilities be assessed for their ability to serve as appropriate placements for youth transitioning from a state youth prison, or for potential closure
  • Require that, if needed, New Jersey develop a plan, with community input, for renovating or repurposing existing properties into youth rehabilitation centers in the communities most impacted by youth incarceration to accommodate situations where an out-of-home placement is necessary for public safety or other reasons
  • Create a $100 million annual Youth Justice Transformation Fund to fund effective community-based youth programs
  • Require a racial and ethnic disparities study to research and eliminate racial disparities in the youth justice system
  • Place youth incarceration as the last adjudication disposition option, not the default
  • Increase transparency from the Youth Services Commission

The bill has gained strong support from a cross-section of elected officials and community-based nonprofits, including Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, Assemblywoman Linda Carter, Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake, Senator Ronald Rice and Senator Sandra Cunningham.

Activists pointed out that the legislative effort comes after years of ongoing protests and rallies from the local community.

"In response to the 150 Years Is Enough Campaign advocacy, New Jersey made one of the most important youth justice announcements in a generation: that Jamesburg, a youth prison for boys opened over 150 years ago, and Hayes, the state's girls' youth prison, would close," said Ryan Haygood, president and CEO of NJISJ.

Haygood said that New Jersey needs a major revamp of its juvenile justice system, where black youth are 30 times more likely to be locked up… the highest racial disparity rate in the United States.

"[In] a state of nine million people, New Jersey has just 16 white kids confined, even though black and white kids commit most offenses at similar rates," Haygood said.

The cost of incarcerating juvenile offenders in the Garden State is steep, according to Andrea McChristian, director of the NJISJ Criminal Justice Reform Initiative.

"The annual price tag for each kid is $289,000," McChristian said. "To add insult to injury, New Jersey is advancing a plan to spend $160 million to build three new prisons for kids – and the state's FY 2020 budget includes a $7 million repayment for the bond. This is not the kind of investment our kids need."

Several elected officials and community leaders issued statements in support of the bill earlier this week.

Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (District 35, Bergen/Passaic counties) – "This is long overdue in New Jersey. We must afford our children every opportunity to flourish by investing in their success, as opposed to continuing down a path that increases recidivism and incarceration rates. This legislation sets forth a comprehensive, practical, and visionary plan that will build and empower our young people through prevention, community-based programming, diversion, and rehabilitation. I am grateful to advocates like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the 150 Years is Enough Campaign for their partnership and for continuing to support legislative efforts which place our children and the communities we serve at the forefront."

Senator Ronald Rice (District 28, Essex County) – "I am proud to introduce the New Jersey Youth Justice Transformation Act in the New Jersey Senate to finally end New Jersey's shameful era as the state with the worst Black to white youth incarceration disparity rate in the country. This is a rate double that of the second state on the list, Wisconsin. It is intolerable. One of the most important provisions of this legislation is for a racial and ethnic disparities study to research and eliminate the racial disparities in New Jersey's youth justice system. We must confront the difficult truth that New Jersey is one of the most progressive and regressive states in America simultaneously—and that its racial disparities in the criminal justice system are driven not by actual participation in crime, but by racism. It is time to change that. There have been too many families of color devastated by discriminatory policies that keep our kids down instead of building them up. I am proud to partner with my colleagues in the Senate and my friends at the Institute to get this bill signed and passed by Governor Murphy expeditiously."

Assemblywoman Linda Carter (District 22, Middlesex/Somerset/Union counties) – "The New Jersey Youth Justice Transformation Act is a critical piece of legislation that will overhaul the deeply broken and failed youth justice system in New Jersey. I am proud to work with my legislative colleagues and fierce advocates like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the 150 Years is Enough campaign to bring a new, fairer and more compassionate system to our state, one that will support our kids instead of investing in their failure."

Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (District 34, Essex/Passaic counties) – "I am proud to support this powerful piece of legislation that puts the interest of kids above building prisons for them. It is a privilege to work with my legislative colleagues and advocates like the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice to prioritize the welfare of New Jersey's vulnerable children – especially those of color – who deserve better than what we've been giving them."

Senator Sandra Cunningham (District 31, Hudson County) – "We have been treating New Jersey's children of color as disposable for far too long through our youth justice system. I am proud to work with my colleagues to support the New Jersey Youth Justice Transformation Act, which will provide systemic and broad-based support mechanisms to truly reform a very broken system and bring hope to so many young lives."

Rev. Charles Boyer (pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury) – "I see the devastation of our racist youth justice system every day, helping families manage the pain and suffering that comes from seeing young lives ruined for no good reason. Our communities are doing their part by raising their voices and marching the streets to say loudly and clearly there are no throwaway kids. All kids can be saved if we make the investments in them they deserve. It is heartening to now see legislators do their part to reform our broken system, and I commend the courageous representatives who have introduced this groundbreaking legislation that, once law, will put into place the structures necessary to support our kids instead of crushing them."

Rev. Timothy Adkins-Jones (pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark) – "We are advocating for transformation of our youth justice system into a system of community-based care where investments are made in our kids, not in incarcerating them; where there is no longer a pernicious 'school-to-prison pipeline'; where wraparound services and support structures are embedded in the community so that kids stay out of the system; and where, when out-of-home placement is necessary, youth are held in small, community-based, therapeutic residential programs with the ultimate goal of returning to their homes. The money spent on incarcerating even one child would provide much needed resources to communities searching for ways to be proactive in the development of our children. This legislation helps move us closer to realizing this transforming, affirmative vision for what youth justice can look like in New Jersey."

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