New Jersey spends $60 million a year to keep its three main youth prisons open at half-capacity at best, says a coalition of organizations seeking to close at least two of those facilities and spend that money to better rehabilitate and help young offenders.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice is spearheading a campaign, along with 47 other groups and individuals, to close the New Jersey Training School for Boys in Jamesburg and the Female Secure Intake Facility, also known as Hayes, in Bordentown. About 300 people kicked off the effort on Wednesday, the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Jamesburg facility, at a rally outside it.
“The #150yearsisenough campaign seeks to transform New Jersey’s youth incarceration system into a community-based system of care by closing Jamesburg and Hayes,” said Elizabeth Weill-Greenberg, spokeswoman for the NJISJ. “We must make sure that our youth receive the rehabilitation they need, so that they can grow into responsible adults.”
Not just kids
It’s important to understand that the state facilities hold more than just youths. The Juvenile Justice System’s June 23 report indicates the average age of those incarcerated was slightly higher than 18, with about 35 percent under 18.
Data from the New Jersey Juvenile Justice Commission shows that last Friday, 524 people were in the state juvenile justice system. A little more than half, or 274, were in one of the three prisons – Jamesburg, Hayes, and the Juvenile Medium Security Facility, also in Bordentown — or 11 less restrictive community-based homes. Of the others, 63 were on probation and 187 in aftercare, or supervised parole. Camden County had the largest number in the system, 109, while Essex County had the greatest number incarcerated, 52.
That data does not specify where those who are incarcerated are being held. According to NJISJ’s report on the system issued late last year, March 2016 data showed that 140 males were being held in Jamesburg, which has a capacity of 330, and Hayes was at less than 20 percent of capacity, with 8 females being held. A March 2017 audit of the medium security facility stated that it was less than half full, with a population of 70 and capacity of 163.
Cutting the inmate population at youth facilities has been a priority for the state for more than a decade, and New Jersey’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has been cited as a national model by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. According to the JJC, the state’s total daily population in detention facilities dropped by 65 percent between 2014 and 2015. Only three counties — Hunterdon, Morris and Salem — are not participating in the initiative. The JJC has saved about $7 million over the past several fiscal years, the report stated.
The cost of incarceration
Still, the institute’s “Ain’t I A Child” report also showed that incarceration is much more expensive than community placement. The current state budget appropriated about $63.6 million for the maximum and minimum security facilities, according to the report. It pegged the cost of confinement at $537 per person, per day, while community placement had a daily per-person cost of $75.
“The fact that 60 million dollars is still being poured annually into our largely empty three youth prisons — and that over 200K is spent each year to incarcerate each child — shows that there has to be a better way from an economic perspective,” wrote Andrea McChristian, the institute’s associate counsel and primary author of that report, in response to an email question.
She said the state is spending only $8 million on community-based programs that include intervention and prevention, alternatives to incarceration and re-entry.
“We are calling for a transformation of our system, which includes closure of youth prisons and reinvestment of funds into these community based programs,” McChristian said. “We are going beyond JDAI’s success at the pre-detention stage to make sure that our kids never become system-involved in the first instance and, when they do, every attempt is made to keep them in their communities near family and other prosocial supports.”
Money is only one reason for the campaign. The institute and its partners argue that recidivism rates for those in confinement are too high and a disproportionate number of those kept incarcerated are minorities. Community placement does a much better job of helping youth offenders, they contend.
“Our youth prisons are a revolving door of recidivism,” said Weill-Greenberg, citing 2012 data that found 80 percent of 500 youths released from commitment in 2012 were re-arrested or otherwise wound up back in court and almost a third were back in custody within three years of their release. “Studies show that long-term youth incarceration actually increases recidivism. Children who are incarcerated are more likely to be imprisoned and to live in poverty as adults.”
Minority in the majority
They are also predominantly minority, despite data showing that white and minority youths offend at similar rates. Last Friday, just 7 percent of the males and females held in youth facilities were white. Almost three quarters were black.
“(New Jersey) has had great success in reducing its population of kids in secure commitment, as well as its young people in detention centers” because of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative,” McChristian said. “However, as a racial and social justice organization, our concern is with the kids who are left behind and ensuring kids don’t become system-involved in the first instance. Currently, in New Jersey, we have the third worst black/white youth incarceration disparity in the entire nation: A black child is 24.3 times more likely to be sent to a secure juvenile facility than a white child. And this is in the face of recent national research that shows that black and white youth commit similar offenses at similar rates.”
“It’s time to stop using black children to feed the prison economy and start using those same dollars to invest in the mental, spiritual, behavioral, and educational economy of black children,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of Salvation and Social Justice, pastor of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury.
Boyer is one of the signatories to a letter the campaign sent asking Gov. Chris Christie to close Jamesburg and Hayes.
“By shifting focus away from youth incarceration toward community-based programs — supported by state funding through the Juvenile Justice Commission’s state/community partnership program — we can ensure that our youth receive the rehabilitation they need to mature and grow,” that letter states.
The campaign accepts that some young people may need to be held in a secure environment for public safety reasons, but wants those facilities should be small, developmentally appropriate, and treatment-centered and be close to a youth’s home and family support.
The JCC did not address the request to close the two maximum-security facilities, but issued a more general statement about its work.
“The JJC has a long history of working with community partners and advocates, and has received national recognition for its efforts in juvenile justice reform, having been designated by the Annie E. Casey Foundation as its national model for implementation of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative,” read the statement provided by spokeswoman Sharon Lauchaire. “The JJC is proud of the progress made thus far, and will continue to do everything in its power to further improve outcomes for youth in the juvenile justice system.”