NEWARK, NJ - A new bill that would close two of the state’s secure youth prisons and give $100 million in funding for community programs received praise from a civil rights group and clergy.
The legislation would require the state to assess the 11 non-secure youth facilities that are already in place. The reports will recommend whether any youth residential facility should be closed due to under-utilization or renovated to accommodate those transitioning from a secure facility.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice said the legislation was "inspired" by its policy recommendations. The institute, an advocacy group that is also involved in monitoring the Newark Police Department, has for years pushed for the closure of the state’s two secure youth residential prisons, one of which is more than 150 years old.
Former Gov. Chris Christie announced at the tail end of his final term in office that Jamesburg, a prison for boys in Monroe, and Hayes, a girls prison in Bordentown, would close. The state prepared to bond for three regional rehabilitation centers in response to the closures, but only two were announced for Ewing and Winslow at a price tag of $162 million.
“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,” said New Jersey Institute for Social Justice CEO and President Ryan Haygood in a statement. “The legislation will position New Jersey as a national model for youth justice transformation.”
The two secure youth prisons still remain open today, even as Gov. Phil Murphy created a Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice. In April, Murphy released a statement saying that a new secure youth residential center in North Jersey for young offenders would be established somewhere in North Jersey, much to the frustration of the institute.
Haygood sits on the governor's task force. The institute has previously said it learned a new regional facility was slated for Newark. Residents here joined the institute in a protest at the possible proposed site and called on Murphy to halt any new construction of new youth prisons.
The legislation is sponsored in the state Senate by Sens. Ron Rice (D-Essex) and Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson).
“There have been too many families of color devastated by discriminatory policies that keep our kids down instead of building them up,” Rice said in a statement. “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.”
The bill would also require the state to develop a plan with community input for renovating or repurposing existing properties into youth rehabilitation center. It would also require a racial and ethnic study to research disparities in the youth justice system.
It costs $289,000 annually to incarcerate a juvenile, said Andrea McChristian, the institute's director of the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. Rev. Timothy Adkins-Jones, the pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, said when out-of-home placement is necessary, youth should be held in small, community-based, therapeutic programs.
“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,” Adkins-Jones said in a statement.
The legislation is sponsored in the lower house by Assemblywomen Linda Carter (D-Union) and Shavonda Sumter (D-Bergen), who announced the bill at the institute's rally last month.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka previously released a joint statement in April with Murphy that implied he supported a new secure youth jail in North Jersey, but later clarified his stance saying otherwise.
When reached by TAPinto Newark, a spokeswoman for the mayor said Baraka "supports [the legislation] on its face, but needs to look deeper at the legislation."