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Dissent to Task Force Recommendation on Juvenile Justice Commission Youth Prisons
By NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Latino Action Network, Salvation and Social Justice and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
New Jersey is at a critical youth justice moment.
Following a historic 2018 announcement that two of New Jersey’s three youth prisons will close, the state has the opportunity to finally transform its shameful youth justice system into one in which all youth are given the opportunity to thrive.
In New Jersey, a Black youth is almost 18 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white youth, the highest racial disparity rate in America, despite Black and white youth committing most offenses at similar rates. New Jersey also has the fourth-highest Latino-to-white youth incarceration disparity rate in the country, with a Latino youth over four times more likely to be detained or committed than a white youth. In February 2022, there were only 11 white youth incarcerated out of 102 total youth in contrast to 65 Black and 21 Latino youth. New Jersey’s youth prisons are also not safe places for youth, who have been subjected to physical violence and challenges to their mental health. This year, a former JMSF corrections officer pled guilty to aggravated assault for slamming a 16-year-old to the ground and twisting his wrist, causing it to fracture – without cause. Also, studies have shown that youth mental health concerns are compounded and exacerbated by time in secure confinement. Moreover, New Jersey’s youth incarceration system does not significantly reduce recidivism or increase public safety. Of the 336 youth released from commitment in state youth facilities in 2015, 78% had a new court filing or arrest, 61.3% had a new adjudication or conviction and 28% were recommitted within three years of release.
Lastly, while harmful to those within them, youth prisons are largely empty – and wasteful. In February 2022, youth prisons were almost 80% empty while staffing levels were maintained as if the prisons were full.
Despite the staggering racial disparities, the declining overall population of incarcerated youth and the danger to youth, New Jersey has doubled down on investment in incarceration. New Jersey will spend an incredible $608,095 to incarcerate each youth in a state youth prison in Fiscal Year 2023.
It doesn’t have to be this way. New Jersey has the opportunity to finally close its youth prisons and transform its broken youth justice system.
But such a precious moment for transformation will be squandered if Governor Murphy decides to simply construct new youth prisons on the other side of closing larger ones.
In support of the voices heard from the community during the three public hearings across New Jersey and beyond, Task Force members NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Latino Action Network, Salvation and Social Justice and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice submit this dissenting brief in opposition to the Task Force’s recommendation to construct new youth prisons.
As the more than 900 community members who attended the three Task Force public hearings held in Newark, Trenton and Camden made clear, New Jersey does not need to construct new youth prisons. More 2 than 500 people in Newark echoed this same position when they surrounded a location in Newark to defeat a proposal to construct a new youth prison and urged Governor Murphy not to build a prison there or elsewhere in New Jersey.
Instead, as community members — including impacted youth, adults and their families — expressed, our communities need investment, not incarceration. Young people should be rehabilitated in well-resourced community-based programs as the default. And, in the rare instance where a youth may need to be kept out of-home for public safety reasons, it shouldn’t be in a youth prison. Rather, these young people should be supported in community-based home-like environments close to home. This is what meaningful transformation is about.
To chart the way forward for transforming our youth justice system, New Jersey should commit to taking the following three steps: (1) establishing a youth prison closure timeline this year, (2) investing $100 million into community-based youth programs and (3) transforming its youth facilities.
(1) New Jersey Must Set a Closure Timeline
By the end of 2022, New Jersey must establish a timeline for the closure of Jamesburg, Hayes and the Juvenile Medium Security Facility that includes a plan to close all three facilities by the end of 2024. This timeline should establish key dates for moving as many youth as possible from youth facilities into community-based programs, for implementing a prison worker transition plan and for repurposing existing buildings within impacted communities to create home-like Youth Resource Centers for the few youth who require secure placements (described further below).
(2) New Jersey Must Invest $100 Million into Community-Based Youth Programs
New Jersey must deepen its investment in building up youth, not new youth prisons for them. Under Governor Murphy’s administration, New Jersey has increased its investment in youth incarceration and will spend an incredible $608,095 to incarcerate each youth in a state youth prison in Fiscal Year 2023. New Jersey has not, similarly, increased its funding for the state/community partnership grant program, which provides county Youth Services Commissions with funds to support community-based programs (including prevention, diversion and reentry programs) aimed to keep young people out of incarceration. To make a meaningful investment in our young people, New Jersey must create a $100 million lockbox fund to finance community services and programming in the communities most impacted by youth incarceration. This fund will build upon the $8.4 million investment allocated to the Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youth and Communities Pilot Program. To finance this fund, New Jersey should use all closure-related cost savings and any additional funding opportunities available – including cannabis revenue.
(3) New Jersey Must Transform its Youth Facilities
New Jersey must close its three youth prisons and create a community-based continuum of care.
As mentioned, the default should be to place as many youth as possible in well-funded community-based programs.
For the few youth who require a secure care placement, the state should develop publicly run, treatment-focused and youth-centered Youth Resource Centers (YRCs). Following national best practices, these centers should be housed in repurposed buildings that are within the communities most impacted by youth 3 incarceration so youth can be easily visited and supported by family and support networks – a key component of rehabilitation. Community member input and feedback should be integral to their design.
These centers should have no more than 30 beds and their funding structure should incentivize reducing the youth population on an annual basis. The JJC should also assess the extent to which certain non-secure Residential Community Homes (RCHs) are already within impacted communities and determine whether these RCHs can be repurposed into Youth Resource Centers. We recommend the JJC identify which RCHs are far from home, expensive to run and do not mirror the community-based resources available to youth, with an aim to close these RCHs to align with the transformation occurring in secure facilities.
Once these centers are created, the few youth who require secure placements should be transferred from the existing youth prisons into these centers to coincide with the closure of the state’s three youth prisons. We also urge the state to close any RCHs that cannot be repurposed into YRCs and place the cost savings from closure into the lockbox fund.
New Jersey cannot transform its youth justice system by simply replacing old youth prisons with new, smaller youth prisons. That is not transformation but maintaining the status quo and perpetuating the kind of carceral model that is largely out of step with contemporary thinking and best practices, especially regarding young people. Instead, New Jersey must take bold action and announce a prison closure timeline, invest in community programs and transform its youth facilities.
For all of these reasons, we dissent.
NAACP New Jersey State Conference
Latino Action Network
Latino Action Network Foundation
Salvation and Social Justice
New Jersey Institute for Social Justice
Second Chance Quest
St. Marks UMC
St. Paul Baptist Church, Montclair
American Friends Service Committee
Essex County College Adjunct Faculty
Campaign to End New Jim Crow
Faith in New Jersey
New Brunswick NAACP
Faces of Fallen Fathers
Social and Food Justice Director of Trinity Episcopal Church
Social Justice Commission
Asbury Park Transformative Justice
Integrated Justice Alliance
The Wei LLC
The NJ Black Issues Convention
Cape May County NAACP
Youth First Initiative
All of Us or None – South Jersey
Newark Opportunity Youth Network
Women Who Never Give Up, Inc.
Reimagining Justice Inc./ Paterson Healing Collective
Grant Chapel A.M.E Church
Rhashonna Cosby Civic Association
Nevada’s Second Chance
Destination Innovation, Inc.
Maine Prisoner Advocacy Coalition
SouthWest Organizing Project
Maine Youth Justice
Village of Arts & Humanities
End Youth Prisons MN – Legal Rights Center
Youth Advocate Programs, Inc.
Family Success Institute
Urban League of Essex County
Passaic County Department of Human Services
Churches Improving Communities
Women Who Never Give Up, Inc.
Congregation Beth Hatikvah
Christ Temple Baptist Church
New Jersey Parent Caucus
Coastal Communities FSC
Campaign to End the New Jim Crow – Greater Trenton Chapter
Monarch Housing Associates
National Association of Social Workers – NJ Chapter
Newark Community Solutions
Newark Community Street Team
Newark Interfaith Alliance
New Jersey Head Start Association
Our Revolution Essex
Beacon Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Masjid Waarith Ud Deen
Ironbound Community Corporation
Our Revolution Trenton-Mercer
Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair
Not in Our Town Princeton
NAACP Criminal Justice Reform
Newark Communities for Accountable Policing
North New Jersey Democratic Socialists of America
Asbury Park Complete Streets Coalition
Asbury Park Transformative Justice
Centennial AME Zion Church