New Jersey’s youth prisons are too costly, too far from families and failing miserably at their core mission: preventing kids from committing new crimes.
Consider what we’re paying to send just one teenager to a half-empty prison: nearly $300k – more than it costs to go to Princeton.
Worse still, within three years of release, almost 80 percent of these kids are back in trouble with the law.
Even the Christie administration, which defended its share of scandals, found that unpalatable.
To its credit, it announced a plan to close two of our most overfunded and moribund youth prisons; including the largest, Jamesburg, which now houses just 122 kids.
But Christie’s team also announced its intention to construct at least two new facilities. This was done with all his usual transparency, raising the $160 million with no legislative or voter approval for the buildings.
Then it was handed off to Phil Murphy’s administration. The challenge now is to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes, all over again.
This isn’t some dastardly plot – the plan was developed with input from respected experts like the Vera Institute and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the architect behind our state’s reforms in the front end of the system, which divert more kids out of prison.
And the proposed facilities are not necessarily radioactive, if they are divided into small units, well-funded, or with free bus transportation for families.
But piles of studies show kids are generally better served in lower cost, smaller settings in the community, rather than in larger detention centers like this.
Constructing new facilities of more than 40 beds each seems like a reversal of that strategy. Before we do that, we need to make sure we have it right.
Science tells us adolescent brains are still rewiring; kids are more reckless and impulsive, especially if they’ve suffered trauma. We don’t want to put them in prison-like settings that do more to trigger than treat them.
And the $160 million we’ve earmarked for these facilities may be better spent on more effective and humane community programs.
Currently, we spend only $16 million on programs that allow kids to live in or near their homes while receiving counseling or job services, according to Andrea McChristian of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
The state also has 11 residential homes, also at half capacity, which usually house 30 kids or fewer and could be made more secure.
Those who commit the most serious offenses need secure confinement. The question is, where? This much is certain: We shouldn’t build one bed until there is a public reckoning with what our needs really are.
“There’s this ‘Field of Dreams’ problem,” as Alexander Shalom of the ACLU of New Jersey says. “If you build it, they will come. And we want as few kids in prisons as we could possibly have.”
A task force of policy experts was only created by the governor in response to their advocacy for it, with the caveat that it wouldn’t interfere with reforms already underway. It’s the Trumpian school of ready, fire, aim.
And the fact that the unions representing staffers at these facilities, like CWA, were strong supporters of Murphy and outspoken against their closure also raises red flags.
The governor should impose a moratorium on any new project until the task force can do its work. It should hold public meetings and fully disclose the research it uses. The process must be more transparent.
“To me, that’s where the failure is,” says Rev. Charles Boyer, a member of the task force, who worries it “has absolutely no teeth.”
New Jersey has one of the nation’s worst racial disparities, he notes, with black kids 30 times more likely to be arrested and sent to prison.
So why, he asks, we are “prepared to make $160 million investment in brick and mortar to house mostly black and brown children, without having done the due diligence of seeing if that’s actually necessary?"