As the father of four children and seven grandchildren, I’ve seen firsthand youth’s needs for consistent support and guidance. We all have a role to play in making this a reality for all children.
I have worked for nearly five decades to improve our country’s juvenile justice and child welfare systems. I’ve worked with communities and system leaders to help states shutter youth prisons, decrease the use of solitary confinement, and helped multiple agencies seeking to better serve young people.
I’ve had the opportunity to do this work across several states, including New Jersey, where I supported efforts to bring the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative to life in 2004. We reduced reliance on secure detention and reduced overcrowding in the state’s detention facilities by improving the detention screening process and creating local alternatives to incarceration that would help young people get back on track. Since then, the reliance on local secure detention as well as the use of state-run secure commitment facilities has been significantly reduced.
New Jersey has made great progress in reducing the number of youth in locked facilities, and last year announced the closure of two youth prisons. However, the state persists in planning to spend $160 million to build three more youth prisons while the state’s existing youth residential homes are at less than half capacity. Instead of pumping more funds into a failed model, New Jersey should completely transform its youth justice system.
The current system fails young people: large numbers of youth who experience the current institutional model reoffend. Shamefully, unconscionable racial disparities continue to plague the system, and despite similar rates of misbehavior, a black child is 30 times more likely to be detained or committed than a white child.
These poor results are at taxpayers’ expense. Each year, the state spends more than $280,000 to incarcerate just one child — about five times the cost of annual tuition at Princeton University.
Now is the time for a better approach — a transformative approach — that focuses on redirecting funds into proven community-based alternatives for the vast majority of youth and for a very small number of youth who need secure care for public safety reasons, improving or downsizing the 11 existing small residential youth homes.
Such a transformative vision has already been outlined by New Jersey’s 150 Years is Enough Campaign -- including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, Salvation and Social Justice, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and My Brother’s Keeper-Newark, among others -- which aims to close New Jersey’s youth prisons and to reinvest funds into community-based programs.
In rare instances where out-of-home placement is necessary, New Jersey should use its existing youth residential homes, not construct new ones, and ensure that the residential youth homes are small (under 30 beds, 15 ideally), trauma-informed, encourage family involvement, and offer a variety of treatment services for young people.
One or more of the state’s existing youth residential homes could also be made more secure, if necessary, to address public safety concerns. Building a range of effective programs substantially reduces the likelihood that young people repeat their mistakes and return to the system. These approaches keep youth near their support systems, produce better outcomes, and help youth get back on track.
New Jersey should not depend on a smaller version of a failed institutional model. This kind of system transformation is possible in New Jersey and offers a better, more hopeful future for the state’s young people and gives every child the opportunity to thrive.