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NEWARK – The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice today released Investing in Youth, Not Incarceration: A Toolkit for Creating a Community-Led Approach to Youth Mental Health.

The toolkit, released in partnership with Salvation and Social Justice, provides advocates around the state with a blueprint for providing New Jersey’s kids with the mental health support they need in their communities to keep them out of youth prisons and help them thrive.

“New Jersey is failing its vulnerable youth,” said Ashanti Jones, Community Engagement Manager at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “We continue to maintain a broken and inhumane youth justice system that doesn’t rehabilitate our kids but devastates them. This is particularly true for kids with mental health issues, who make up a significant portion of those who are incarcerated.”

New Jersey maintains a broken and inhumane youth justice system that locks up Black kids at almost 18 times the rate as white kids, even though they commit most offenses at similar rates – the highest racial disparity in the nation. Despite the fact that youth prisons are increasingly less populated, the state spends a startling $445,504 per youth each year to prop up an antiquated and harmful system. In May, there were only two girls incarcerated at Hayes youth prison for girls.

Many of the young people caught up in the system suffer from mental health challenges, and incarceration only aggravates these issues. Incarcerated youth with mental health challenges are more likely to attempt suicide, recidivate and develop substance abuse problems than their peers.

On the other hand, mental health care geared toward system-involved youth has resulted in arrest decreases as high as 70%. If such care is provided on the front end, New Jersey can reduce the number of kids who enter the youth justice system.

“Our new Investing in Youth, Not Incarceration toolkit provides advocates with a blueprint for providing our kids with the mental health support they need in their communities to keep them out of the system and help them thrive,” said Yannick Wood, Director of the Criminal Justice Reform Program at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. “As we look to repair the cracks in our foundation exposed over the last year, we must not forget our young people. It’s time to invest in their success, not their failure.”

Based on conversations with over 115 community members about the needs of our youth, Investing in Youth, Not Incarceration provides practical and effective tools for adding mental health care to a community-based system of care, including community cafés, community accountability councils and mental telehealth lines.

The Institute’s previous toolkit provided a roadmap for a community-based system of care based on restorative justice, a process of rehabilitation through reconciliation within the community instead of punishment through the criminal justice system. That toolkit formed the foundation for the Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths and Communities Pilot Program bill currently awaiting Governor Murphy’s signature.