The closing of New Jersey’s main youth detention facility is still years away, but social justice advocates are pushing back on a proposal to build a new juvenile justice facility in the state’s largest city.
In one of his last acts as governor, Chris Christie announced in January 2018 that the state would close the New Jersey Training School at Jamesburg, along with a smaller women’s facility. The plan was to replace them with smaller centers in the north, central, and southern parts of the state. Gov. Phil Murphy last October issued an executive order creating a task force to recommend reforms to the state’s juvenile justice system, including plans for shutting down and establishing new youth rehabilitation centers.
The Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey held its first meeting, which was not open to the public, seven weeks ago. Just days later, on March 1, the task force held a conference call during which a representative of the state attorney general’s office announced a Newark site as the location for one new youth facility, according to a written summary of the call. While not including specifics of the proposed Newark site, the summary indicates the state wants sites to be between five and seven acres, with the new facilities to accommodate about 48 beds.
Site of old Pabst brewery
The proposed site is the now vacant former location of the Pabst brewery at the intersection of South Orange Avenue and Grove Street. The Newark Community Economic Development Corporation had put out a request for proposals to redevelop the site in December 2015 that valued the four-acre property at $3 million. The site had been used as an illegal landfill and had groundwater contamination. Property records show that Crown Real Estate Holdings of Elizabeth is the current owner. According to the call summary, the state has submitted a “letter of intent” to purchase the property.
A spokesman for Newark gave a brief statement expressing the city’s lack of interest in becoming home to a facility in the West Ward neighborhood that would be near West Side High School and two charter schools.
“It’s not happening,” said Frank Baraff, Newark’s director of communications. “If the city says it’s not happening, it’s not happening. Period.”
A statement issued by the city later on Monday said the proposed site is unavailable and impractical.
“I support the closing of youth prisons,” Mayor Ras Baraka said in the statement. “A new youth prison in Newark is simply not happening … The money saved by closing youth prisons and not constructing new buildings should be invested in strategic and comprehensive community engagement programs, such as our newly formed Brick City Peace Collective and alternative policing strategies.”
The United Black Agenda Group, comprising four civil rights organizations, wrote Murphy a letter last week to oppose a new Newark youth detention facility, as well as new centers proposed for the central and southern parts of the state, on a number of grounds. Most importantly, groups including the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and the NAACP New Jersey State Conference called on the governor to spend money on rehabilitation and not incarceration.
Counting the beds
“New Jersey does not need any more youth prison beds,” reads the activists’ letter. “Our state has eleven non-secure youth residential community homes, and these facilities are at less than half capacity … all but two of the young people estimated to be incarcerated in a youth prison in 2020 could be moved to an empty bed within a residential community home.”
Data included in Murphy’s 2020 budget proposal estimate that the average daily population in the state’s youth prisons is 188 in the current fiscal year: 122 at Jamesburg and 66 at the higher-security Johnstone campus in Bordentown, which includes the Hayes Female Secure Care and Intake Facility that is also slated for closure. That represents little more than a third of the capacity of those facilities.
That’s along the lines of a reduction of the population in county youth detention facilities. Since the state embarked on the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative in 2004, the daily population in secure youth facilities in New Jersey has dropped by 70 percent. The initiative stresses the use of evaluations of the risk a youth might pose to the public, as well as home confinement, shelter care, and other alternatives to incarceration. Since then, more than half of the counties — most recently, Union County, last month — have closed their detention centers.
Christie announced the closure of Jamesburg and Hayes as part of a $162 million effort to modernize the state’s youth justice system. He called Jamesburg “one of the oldest, most antiquated youth prisons in the nation.” Built in 1867 originally as a “home for troubled youth,” today it encompasses seven cottages for housing, a school, vocational building, recreational and medical facilities, and offices. The budget estimates the cost of incarcerating a youth in one of the state’s three major facilities at $289,287 per year, or close to $793 a day.
The social justice institute and other groups spearheaded the 150 Years is Enough Campaign to close the youth prisons and cheered when Christie announced the closure of Jamesburg and Hayes. But now they are concerned that the money saved will not go into community-based programs, as they have recommended.
The New Jersey Economic Development Agency’s board approved the closure of Jamesburg and Hayes to be replaced by three smaller centers as part of a larger bond issue in December 2017. As approved by the State House Commission that same month, the new locations would be at the former Woodbridge Developmental Center, Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in Winslow, and on Department of Human Services land in Ewing.
Woodbridge officials balked at the prospect of a youth prison on eight acres of the former developmental center property and announced plans last year to buy the property. The Newark location would serve as a northern site instead.
To state officials, the construction of three smaller youth detention centers in different parts of the state is part of the mission of the task force.
“Gov. Murphy believes deeply in transforming our juvenile justice system to prioritize treatment, rehabilitation, and positive reinforcement for young people,” said Alexandra Altman, a Murphy spokeswoman. “The Administration seeks to balance public safety with the potential closure of existing facilities and opening of smaller regional sites to allow young people the ability to be close to their families and home communities.”
That’s not enough for the advocates, however, who view this as the perfect opportunity to radically reform the youth justice system. They support the recommendations in a vision document from the 150 Years is Enough campaign.
They are calling for the state to develop a plan for closing all three of its detention facilities, including the Juvenile Medium Secure Facility in Bordentown that houses youth and young adults who have committed homicide, sexual offenses, serious assaults or have previously escaped from detention. Officials should examine whether to close any other facilities or use them to house those who would otherwise be incarcerated and spend more money on community-based programs.
“Instead of building new facilities, why not look to repurpose our current facilities and make them more secure, if necessary,” said Andrea McChristian, director of the social justice institute’s criminal justice reform initiative. He said some of the 11 nonsecure facilities are currently at less than half capacity; one, in Newark can house 25 but has only seven occupants. “It’s important this process be transparent.”
Addressing racial disparities
The advocates also want the state to address the racial disparities in youth incarceration — 89 percent of those sent to detention are black or Hispanic.
The advocates believe that new youth centers should be built only as a last resort, after examining all other possibilities. But the state’s announcement of a new detention center in Newark before the task force has held even one public meeting “will reduce this potentially transformative opportunity to a mere construction project, where larger youth prisons are closed in favor of the construction of smaller ones, leaving the existing broken and racially discriminatory youth justice system intact,” their letter states.
It cites data from the Sentencing Project showing that New Jersey has by far the largest black-white youth incarceration disparity in the nation: African-American youth are 31 times more likely to be detained than whites.
Murphy recognizes the problem, stating on the Ask Gov. Murphy radio call-in show earlier this month, “The track record, particularly of young persons of color in our state, is dire, historically.” But he told the caller, who had asked when Jamesburg would be closed, that there is still no timeframe.
“It is something we are very focused on,” he said. “We are not there yet. Our hope was that we would allow this task force to complete its work … I would prefer to have an understanding of a construct of where we’re headed on juvenile justice and then fit the pieces into that.”
Since announcing the closing of Jamesburg and Hayes, New Jersey has only increased its investment in youth prisons, with the annual cost of keeping an individual in detention in one of the youth facilities this year estimated to be $47,000 more than in the 2018 fiscal year, according to the budget proposal.
Administration officials indicated they will not take any action to build a new facility anywhere without getting input from local officials and the community.
The task force is charged with having at least three public hearings.