Reformers have long called on New Jersey to close its three youth prisons. A new report echoes that call — but recommends three new ones. (Canva image)
Four years after state officials vowed to close two of New Jersey’s three youth prisons, a state-convened task force on Tuesday recommended the construction of three new youth prisons, a move some reformers rebuked as wasteful and contradictory to their goals of reducing racial disparities.
The Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey issued a 70-page report Tuesday with about 45 recommendations intended to accelerate the state’s shift in juvenile justice from incarceration to rehabilitation.
The 24-member task force included judges, pastors, attorneys, a lawmaker, and juvenile justice advocates. Their report came after four years of study and three public hearings in Newark, Trenton, and Camden that drew more than 900 people.
“No youth is beyond redemption,” the report states. “As we know from the brain science, adolescence continues into the mid 20s. It is a time of significant growth and maturation. It presents, therefore, a critical opportunity for redirection. And all young people, whatever harm they may have caused, deserve just that, with a robust assortment of programs and opportunities for growth and rehabilitation.”
The task force applauded the long-delayed but imminent closures of the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Jamesburg and the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility in Bordentown and urged state officials to close the Juvenile Medium Security Facility in Bordentown, too.
But the task force also recommended the state build three new smaller youth prisons to replace the existing facilities.
That is unacceptable, said four social justice groups that participated in the task force but objected to that recommendation. In a dissent, the NAACP New Jersey State Conference, Latino Action Network, Salvation and Social Justice, and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice raised concerns about racial disparities, safety, and waste.
New Jersey’s youth prisons have the highest racial disparities in the nation, the groups said, with Black youth almost 18 times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth, even though Black and white youth commit most offenses at similar rates. Latino youth in New Jersey are more than four times as likely to be detained or committed as white youth, the groups said.
New Jersey’s youth prisons also are unsafe, reformers said, pointing to a correctional officer’s 2020 attack on a handcuffed teen that left the boy with a broken wrist.
The state has reduced its youth prison population in recent years. As of May 6, just 102 youth were being held in the three juvenile prisons, which have a combined capacity of about 370, according to Juvenile Justice Commission data.
But the youth prisons remain fully operational and staffed, with New Jersey set to spend $608,095 per incarcerated youth in the coming fiscal year, reformers said.
“New Jersey has the opportunity to finally close its youth prisons and transform its broken youth justice system,” the dissent states. “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.”
The groups urged the state to set a timeline this year to close existing youth prisons and invest $100 million into community-based youth programs.
For youth who need to be in a secure facility, the groups called on the state to open publicly run, treatment-focused youth resource centers in repurposed buildings in communities most impacted by youth incarceration to ensure families can visit. The facilities should house no more than 30 youth, with incentives in place to reduce their youth population.
Task force member Alexander Shalom, senior supervising attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, acknowledged juvenile justice still has a ways to go in New Jersey.
“While working toward a vision of New Jersey where no children are incarcerated, we also recognize that current sentencing laws, which allow prosecutors to charge children in adult court, necessarily mean that some children will be imprisoned in high-security facilities away from home,” Shalom said in a statement. “Above all, New Jersey must invest far more money in keeping kids out of prison than keeping them in.”
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