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Profile: Former Corporate Employee Whose New Job Is Turning Around Kids’ Lives

Retha Onitiri doesn’t believe in setting her goals too low; she just wants to remake the state’s system of juvenile incarceration

retha onitiri
Retha Onitiri

Who: Retha Onitiri

Hometown: Millstone

Family: Married, two daughters

What she does: Manager of the “Youth Decarceration Campaign” and leader of the New Jersey Communities Forward initiative of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

How she got here: It wasn’t by the usual route — a lifetime of work in community service.

Onitiri, who earned a master’s degree in organizational management from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, worked in the private sector before joining the institute in 2015. “I spent most of my career at for-profit telecommunications companies,” she said. Onitiri spent 16 years at Alcaltel-Lucent, with her last position being director of Supply Chain Operations for North America until she left two years ago.

It wasn’t all corporate work: Onitiri said that while her professional life was in the corporate world, “I have always worked in the community.” In her off-work hours, she was co-founder and spent a decade with the Freehold Charter New Jersey Orators, a nonprofit working to help youths learn effective public speaking and communication. She was also an executive board member of 180 Turning Lives Around, a nonprofit working to end domestic and sexual violence. She has done other volunteer work, as well, with community gardens and a youth backpack program.

How her career prepared her for her current work: “My passion is organization and project management,” Onitiri said. And she was looking to “make life better in the community” as she moved out of the corporate world. The institute is giving her the perfect opportunity to combine her skills and her desire to help others.

The project she is heading that kicks off next week, an effort to change the state’s system of juvenile incarceration, “is perfect for my skillset: organizing at the community level and reimaging what a system could be,” she said. “I never thought I’d end up here, but I’m thrilled to be able to take my corporate experience and bring it here,” continued Onitiri. “I’ve never been in an environment like this before, where you can be creative and you can see how what you are doing is impacting people.”

Her first task: As leader of the NJCF, Onitiri does community outreach and put together leadership teams in more than a half-dozen cities across New Jersey to identify local problems and develop community-based solutions. The program is built around the question, “how do we make the community safer,” she said.

Onitiri brought local leaders, members of the faith-based community, local police, and other law enforcement personnel together in forums to talk about ways to improve the relationship between the community and law enforcement. The project has shown some positive results. One was the state attorney general’s directive at the end of 2015 to police on the use of body cameras. Another is a law signed last year by Gov. Chris Christie requiring all police officers to complete cultural diversity training.

Her new challenge: Next week, the institute launches its campaign to close the state’s boys’ and girls’ prisons. Being called the “150 years is enough campaign,” Onitiri said a broad coalition of about 50 organizations that include academics, lawyers, mental health professionals, and grassroots groups are pushing to change the way the state deals with young offenders 150 years after Jamesburg, the major boys’ prison, opened its doors.

“Our mission is to reduce the number in the youth prisons and increase the number receiving community care,” she said. The institute issued a report last December that looked at the state’s youth criminal justice system and recommended alternatives to incarceration when possible. According to the institute, just 13 of 222 youths incarcerated in the state’s three youth prisons are white, although research shows young blacks and whites have similar rates of offense.

And locking children away does not prevent them from having future troubles with the law. “After 150 years, we find we are not rehabilitating young people; there are still high recidivism rates,” she said. Community-based programs with wraparound services have proven to be more effective in reducing recidivism than incarceration. Those who need to be placed in a secure facility should instead be in smaller places closer to home that have more therapeutic environments with appropriate treatment.

Something you don’t know about her: When she wants to relax, Onitiri curls up to watch Asian dramas on Netflix. “I enjoy the topics,” she said.

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