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Op-Ed: Racial Disparities in NJ’s Juvenile Justice System Are ‘Unacceptable'

Incarceration is the default for far too many children of color in the Garden State; it’s time to shift to a community-based system of care

Andrea McChristian
Andrea McChristian

A new year signifies a fresh beginning. A time to reflect. A time to renew. And a time to prioritize personal goals as we enter a new season in our lives. Yet, the hope of a new year — and all its promise and optimism — has been denied to some of New Jersey’s most vulnerable residents: our state’s incarcerated children.

In recent years, New Jersey has significantly decreased its youth incarceration rates. Indeed, between 1997 and 2010, the total population of confined youth in the state’s juvenile residential facilities was cut by half.

Even as the number of incarcerated young people has declined to approximately 300, however, significant racial disparities in the incarcerated youth population persist. Indeed, an incredible 75 percent of the young people currently committed to New Jersey juvenile facilities are black. In New Jersey, black youth are a striking 24.3 times more likely to be committed to a secure juvenile facility than their white counterparts.

But this is not because black youth are more criminally culpable. There is, in fact, little difference between black and white youth in terms of delinquent behavior.

As a black woman, former teacher, and civil rights attorney, I find the racial disparities in our state’s juvenile justice system, and the policies that underlie them, heartbreaking and unacceptable.

As we outline in our recent report, Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child?, these stark racial disparities reflect racially discriminatory policy decisions and practices that determine which kids get diverted and which get sentenced to youth prison. These racialized policies, in a material way, are modern day vestiges of American slavery, the convict leasing era that followed, and the more recent reference to “super-predators,” each of which have undermined the right of black youth to be viewed as and treated as children.

But youth incarceration does not work for any of our state’s children. It is ineffective, expensive, destructive, and undermines the legitimate aims of the criminal justice system, including reducing recidivism. Research on adolescent brain development shows that most children grow out of delinquent behavior. Incarcerating youth does not account for this fundamental difference between children and adults and, in fact, inflicts a punishment that will likely carry into a child’s adult years. Indeed, children who are incarcerated are more likely to be imprisoned and live in poverty as adults.

Thankfully, there is a better way. As we discuss in our report, community-based programming with intensive wrap-around services, rather than youth incarceration, has been proven effective in rehabilitating our youth and preventing recidivism. For example, research by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Research and Evaluation Center has shown that, of 3,523 high-risk youth participating in an intensive community-based program, 86 percent remained arrest-free during the program and 93 percent remained at home at the end of services.

Community-based programs are also significantly cheaper than youth incarceration: While New Jersey spends approximately $537.35 a day to incarcerate a child as of 2014, community-based programs have a daily average cost of $75.

By shifting from a system where incarceration is the default for far too many of our children of color, to a community-based system of care, New Jersey can build upon the success it has already had in reducing its overall population of confined youth.

Diversion programs offer yet another opportunity to reach our children before they end up in one of the state’s youth prisons. As one example, every law enforcement agency in the state is required to use stationhouse adjustments — a process wherein a juvenile who has committed a first-time, low-level offense can be diverted from the juvenile justice system if he or she completes certain conditions (such as attending counseling or performing community service).

Unfortunately, implementation of the stationhouse adjustments process varies across New Jersey’s 21 counties. This means that whether a child ends up incarcerated can depend on where they are from, rather than what they have done. We must hold our local police departments accountable to use this important diversionary program to keep our young people home.

To ensure greater uniformity of the stationhouse adjustments program, the Attorney General should issue a formal directive to provide more comprehensive guidance regarding the use of stationhouse adjustments, allow police officers flexibility to divert certain offenses which currently require prosecutorial consent, and to encourage greater use of the program.

We can no longer fail to remedy the irreparable harm that youth incarceration has on our children. Let us act today to ensure that our children remain children because, as Frederick Douglass explained, “it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” This year, we must all commit ourselves to building strong children.

Andrea McChristian is associate counsel at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ).

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