We need to remove the phrase “kids will be kids” from our collective lexicon. There is no doubt, kids will be kids; children as they grow up are prone to make mistakes and it is our responsibility as a community to teach, care for, and train our children.
But because our criminal justice system remains so incredibly biased, kids being kids is met with the system being the system.
New Jersey boasts horrifying disparities in our youth justice system, where children of color are sometimes criminalized for adolescent behavior and sent away from their families and communities – often locked up for years for simply being kids. New Jersey has the worst black to white youth incarceration disparity rate in the nation. In our state, a black child is 30 times – 30 times – more likely to be detained or committed to a youth facility than a white child, while they commit most offenses at about the same rate. As of early this month, of the 205 kids committed to a juvenile justice facility, 150 are black and 16 are white.
This disparity is the result of deep systemic biases in how our children are treated by law enforcement. A black child who acts out in school is often treated much differently than a white kid who misbehaves the same way. What often leads to white after-school detention can often lead to black incarceration. This tendency to demonize black children can destroy young lives and devastate families.
As pastors here in New Jersey, we see this devastation every day and try to help people manage the pain and suffering that comes from seeing these young lives ruined for no reason. The system is not only biased, but it does not work as a deterrent to crime. Of the 377 youth released from commitment in state youth facilities in 2014, about 77 percent had a new court filing or arrest, about 59 percent had a new adjudication or conviction, and almost a quarter were recommitted within three years of release.
Nelson Mandela said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” If this is the barometer of our state’s soul, we are in desperate need of resuscitation. We believe that those who love justice are called to be the moral defibrillators of this state," as Rev. Dr. William Barber once said.
We have been working with a large coalition to right this wrong. Salvation and Social Justice, along with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, the NAACP, My Brother’s Keeper-Newark and others, are all part of the 150 Years is Enough campaign, named to number the years – now 152 – that Jamesburg, one of New Jersey’s youth prisons, has been open.
We have come together to endorse a transformation of our juvenile 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.
We were happy to celebrate progress made in this fight when, in January 2018, the state announced that two of its youth prisons, Jamesburg for boys, and Hayes for girls, would close. Today, those prisons remain open.
We thought that we had made further progress when Gov. Murphy appointed a task force to provide recommendations to the governor’s office, the legislature and other agencies on strategies to reform New Jersey’s youth justice system. But while the task force has only just begun its work, the state submitted a letter of intent to build a new youth prison in Newark – on an environmentally compromised site – without any community input. While we’re glad that Mayor Ras Baraka has declared it won’t happen, the governor has yet to state that clearly.
Either way, there is a plan to build three new facilities in the state. With new beds come the economic incentive to fill them – with our children. The community does not benefit from these new prisons. There is no economic incentive for the community to see a new prison be built, there is only money to be made by contractors on the backs of young black and brown children. The shameful price tag of each of our children is $289,000 per year per child. No matter how you look at it, this is slavery by another name. Yet we have faith leaders, political figures, and investors willing to shackle young Black bodies in order to line their own pockets.
Adding more insult to this deep injury is the fact that all three of our existing youth prisons are at half capacity, as are the state’s 11 existing non-secure youth facilities. We have more than enough space now for young people who are currently jailed. Instead of funneling resources to make sure that we won’t need those beds that are currently open, we are contracting to build more prisons. This cannot continue.
If the system is going to be the system, then the community has to be the community and stand up for our kids. We still believe that when the people put our hearts together, put our heads together and put on our walking shoes, true transformation is possible.
On Saturday, May 18, the 150 Years is Enough campaign is holding a Lock Arms to Unlock Our Kids rally in Newark at West Side High School, after which we will march a few blocks to the proposed site for the new youth prison and capture an aerial photo of us locking arms around it, a symbol of our unified commitment. Please join us, and sign an open letter to elected officials. We are fighting for a state where kids can be kids, the youth criminal justice system will be a youth criminal justice system and where our communities will get to be our communities again.