Dear Governor Phil Murphy, Attorney General Gurbir Grewal, Juvenile Justice Commission Executive Director Kevin Brown, Senate President Steve Sweeney, and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin:
We, the undersigned, urge you to halt New Jersey’s plans to spend $160 million on building youth prisons in Newark and the central and southern regions of the state, and to instead invest those resources in building up the kids and communities most impacted by youth incarceration.
In response to our 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 150 years ago, and Hayes, the state’s girls’ youth prison, would close.
Following this historic announcement, and to finally transform New Jersey’s broken youth justice system, Governor Murphy issued Executive Order No. 42 establishing the Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey.
But just days after the Task Force’s first meeting, an emergency call was convened by Kevin Brown, Executive Director of the Juvenile Justice Commission and the Task Force’s Chair, to announce New Jersey’s plan to build a new youth prison in Newark on an environmentally compromised site near West Side High School, KIPP Rise Academy, and Speedway Academies without any community input.
This is part of New Jersey’s broader plan to invest $160 million to build three new youth prisons in the northern, central and southern regions of New Jersey.
This is a shameful plan. We do not need to build a new youth prison in Newark. Or anywhere else in New Jersey.
New Jersey has eleven non-secure youth residential community homes, and these facilities are at less than half capacity. Indeed, all but two of the young people estimated to be incarcerated in a youth prison in 2020 could be moved to an empty bed within a residential community home.
What New Jersey’s young people deserve is a transformed system, not a mere prison construction project where larger youth prisons are closed in favor of the construction of smaller ones, leaving the existing broken and racially discriminatory youth justice system intact.
New Jersey has the worst Black to white youth incarceration disparity rate in America. A Black child is over 30 times more likely to be detained or incarcerated than a white child, even though research shows that Black and white kids commit most offenses at similar rates. In our state of more than nine million people, only 18 white kids are committed to a youth facility. By contrast, 156 of committed youth are Black.
These racial disparities illuminate the systemic racism facing New Jersey's Black kids.
And yet, in 2019, New Jersey has deepened its investment in youth incarceration, spending a staggering $289,287 to incarcerate each child in a state youth prison—an almost $50,000 increase over 2018—and expects to spend the same amount in 2020.
This substantial investment in youth incarceration is occurring even as the number of incarcerated youth is declining, going from an average daily population of 215 kids in 2018 to 188 in 2019, and the same number is estimated for 2020.
In his budget address, Governor Murphy noted, appropriately, that our state “[i]n every respect, . . . [must] commit to reforming our criminal justice system for the better,” and committed $100 million to combat the opioid epidemic to prevent and “end our national addiction.”
But no such commitments have been made to the Black kids and communities devastated by New Jersey’s disgraceful youth justice system.
Now is the time to build a transformed youth justice system that works for all of our kids.
To do that, we urge you to:
- Halt all plans to construct a new youth prison in Newark or anywhere in New Jersey;
- Commit $100 million and other reparative and restorative investments into building up Black and Latino children and communities most impacted by New Jersey’s failed youth justice system;
- Develop a comprehensive action plan for addressing the state’s harmful youth incarceration racial disparities;
- Create a youth justice transformation lockbox to fund effective community-based programs;
- Develop a closure plan for Jamesburg, Hayes, and JMSF—the state’s most secure youth prison for boys;
- Conduct a comprehensive evaluation of the state’s current non-secure youth residential community homes to determine if they can be closed or used—as is or as renovated/repurposed—to house young people transitioning from, or who would otherwise be sent to, Jamesburg, Hayes, or JMSF;
- Only as a last resort, and only if the state, with community input and oversight, determines that a residential community home does not currently exist in or near a community that is highly impacted by youth incarceration, and, for public safety reasons, a certain number of kids from this community cannot be rehabilitated in the community, repurpose or renovate existing structures (such as closed schools and churches) within these communities to develop youth rehabilitation centers that are 30 beds or less, follow best practices (e.g., therapeutic, rehabilitative, child-centered, family focused, and filled with public workers trained in rehabilitative practices and trauma-informed care), and are tied to financial incentives to reduce the youth population in these facilities on an annual basis; and
- Pass legislation that would implement the community-based system of care model laid out in the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s vision statement, Investing in Kids, Not Prisons: The Urgency of Transformative Youth Justice Reform in New Jersey.
For more information, please see our Reports: Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I a Child and Bring Our Children Home: A Prison-to-School Pipeline for New Jersey’s Youth.
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