Task force hears from public on reform of NJ’s juvenile justice system

At the first of three planned listening sessions, a state task force charged with helping to reform the juvenile justice system in New Jersey heard Thursday night from a variety of speakers about factors that contribute to the disproportionate incarceration rate for black and Hispanic youths.

Meeting in the auditorium of Barringer High School in Newark, the group, created by Gov. Phil Murphy, heard from students, community leaders, and people who have been most directly involved with the system.

“Most of us wasn’t bad boys,” said Julius Morris of Paterson, a former inmate. “We became bad boys inside them institutions.”

Morris touched on one of the primary goals of the group — to come up with recommendation for making youth detention facilities more therapeutic and less training grounds for worse crimes. Also within its purview is reducing recidivism, the juvenile parole system, the role of county youth services commissions and the potential reinvestment of funds now spent on youth incarceration.

Created by Murphy in an October 2018 executive order, the Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey comprises representatives of agencies involved in the justice system, including the attorney general; arms of state government that focus on children, including the Department of Education and the Juvenile Justice Commission, and various community groups including the NAACP. As laid out in the executive order, the group also includes various community members who have been directly impacted by the system.

“We’re calling on members of the community to share their ideas, experiences and opinions related to New Jersey’s youth justice system and suggest ways to improve it,” said Dr. Jennifer LeBaron, who is both the acting head of the Juvenile Justice Commission and chair of the task force.

Among Thursday’s speakers was Nia Livsey, a senior at People’s Prep, a charter high school in Newark, who talked about racial disparities in New Jersey schools.

“Why can’t we have the same, suburban-level education?” she said. “Why can’t we be offered the same opportunities as our white counterparts?”

Also on hand was Sandra King, a board member with the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice, an advocacy group also represented on the task force, who addressed the disparity between the high number of black juveniles jailed and blacks in the general population.

“So could it be that there really is just a handful of bad white kids? I don’t think so. So something else is happening here and that has to be accounted for.”

Studies show the longer juveniles stay in custody, the higher their risk of re-offending. That spells trouble in New Jersey where the regular, “adult” parole board — not a juvenile court judge or other players in the juvenile justice system — decides whether a young offender can be released.

“Data that we reviewed reveals that the number of JJC residents [juvenile offenders] who are currently being denied parole that serve their entire terms approaches 70%,” said Natalie Kraner, a member of the task force. “That is far higher than both incarcerated adults and incarcerated youth in other states. This has been a trend where that percentage has been increasing over the last 10 years.”

She said the task force had also found that white juveniles were significantly more likely to be granted early release than their black counterparts.

“I think the state Parole Board should have nothing to do with juveniles,” said Morris, to applause.

Other speakers questioned the system’s spending priorities.

“If our true mission is to serve our kids in the communities and we enhance our communities, why aren’t we spending at a higher level in communities as opposed to incarceration?” asked Fred Fogg, operations director for the nonprofit Youth Advocate Programs.

Jennifer North of the Institute of Music for Children in Elizabeth, said her group, which works to build self-esteem through the arts, is one that could help keep more kids from offending in the first place with more resources.

“We struggle to find funding to support children of color,” said North, who serves as the group’s development director. “We could easily expand our staff and scale our program. We are dark two days per week, completely empty.”

The next listening session is scheduled for Thursday in Trenton. A week later, the task force convenes another hearing in Camden. Some of the speakers say they hope the group does more than just listen to what is said.

“So, then, when we’re asking questions about what do we want to see in our community, are we actually asking because we want to know or because we want to be able to say that we asked people?” said teacher Stacy Alvarez.