New law aims to slash youth incarceration, expand community supports

Reformers say N.J.’s costly juvenile justice system disproportionately incarcerates kids of color and fails at rehabilitating them.

By: - August 12, 2021 7:03 am

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, serving as acting governor for the vacationing Gov. Phil Murphy, signs a bill establishing the Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths and Communities Pilot Program, on Wednesday, Aug. 11, at the YMCA in Trenton. Photo by Dana DiFilippo of The New Jersey Monitor.

Acting Gov. Sheila Oliver on Wednesday signed legislation that will pump $8.4 million into a two-year restorative justice program supporters say will keep kids out of jail and erase racial disparities in New Jersey’s expensive juvenile justice system.

The money will fund community-based services intended to do two things: resolve conflicts before they lead to incarceration and heal the childhood traumas — like abuse, mental illness, and poverty — that might drive a child to commit a crime or otherwise fall into trouble.

“All of these factors can result in adverse trauma that endangers the child’s welfare and puts them on the wrong trajectory in life,” Oliver said. “This is no fault of the child. It is the systemic failure of our society and justice system to respond to these challenges … this is a challenge that we must confront and a challenge we must win.”

Oliver signed the bill, which establishes the Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths and Communities Pilot Program, at the YMCA in Trenton. Oliver, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor, is acting governor until the vacationing Gov. Phil Murphy returns from overseas.

Restorative justice is an approach that focuses on repairing the harm caused by crime and rehabilitating the offender through relationship-building and conflict resolution. Under the pilot program, “restorative justice hubs” will be created in Newark, Camden, Paterson, and Trenton, the four cities that incarcerate the most youth in New Jersey.

“This is not just a good bill,” said Sen. Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), a primary sponsor of the measure. “This is a game-changer for the state of New Jersey as well as the taxpayers in New Jersey.”

Youth incarceration in New Jersey has long been a problem, with the state’s three juvenile lockups leading the nation in racial disparities. Black youth are 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth here, according to the legislation.

The facilities also are hugely expensive and ineffective. The state spends $445,000 per youth to house juveniles in facilities that are almost 80% empty, according to state data and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. Meanwhile, recidivism rates are high, with 77% of juveniles released from state facilities getting arrested again, and a quarter getting re-incarcerated within three years of release, according to the legislation.

Next up: Closing jails?

Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Passaic) said the state spent $53 million to operate the Juvenile Medium Security Facility in Bordentown, the New Jersey Training School (known as Jamesburg) in Monroe, and the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility (known as Hayes) in Bordentown, while only spending $16 million on community-based youth programs last year.

“We have wasted too many lives and too many dollars doing the same old thing and getting the same old bad results,” said Pou, also a primary sponsor on the bill. “You do the math. It’s simple.”

She added: “We see this law as a guidebook for true restorative justice that will help our kids out of a faulty and unequal system in the first place and give those who are released the resources that they need for the next chapter of their lives.”

The bill didn’t have universal support. Thirty-two Republicans voted against it.

With the law now passed, reformers say they have a new goal in mind: closing the prisons altogether.

“This is an important step toward our larger goal of closing all three of New Jersey’s youth prisons and meaningfully investing dollars into the communities disproportionately harmed by youth incarceration,” said Andrea McChristian, director of Law & Policy at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

That’s not a new idea. In January 2018, then-Gov. Chris Christie announced that he’d close Hayes and Jamesburg. But the closures never happened.

After signing the bill, Oliver said she supports closing the prisons, at least as they exist now.

“They should be reimagined,” Oliver said. “There are going to be young people that need to be detained. But during the time that we are detaining them, we need to be doing something to help them become productive.”

Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck agreed: “There will always be some small number of children we do need to detain because they present a public safety risk. So we are committed to building a smaller number of facilities that are state-of-the-art. We’re still working through exactly what that’s going to look like and where they will be located. But we think that’s the wave of the future.”

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.