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Op-Ed: We Don’t Need New Youth Prisons in Newark or Anywhere Else in Our State

Rather than being incarcerated in failed youth prisons, our young people need support, encouragement, and intensive treatment within their communities

Andrea McChristian
Andrea McChristian

“For these are all our children, we will all profit by or pay for what they become.” —James Baldwin

We recently celebrated Teacher Appreciation Week. As a former Head Start teacher, I understand the impact that meaningful investment can make in the life of a child. It can be the difference between a life filled with opportunity and growth, and one marred by deprivation, loss of hope, and lowered expectations. As I looked around my classroom, I often wondered what would happen to my students if there wasn’t a lasting investment in their future. Where would they end up? What would they become?

With that in mind, what would you say if I told you that, in 2020, New Jersey plans to make a $289,287 investment in the life of each child? Heartening, right? But, rather than an investment in our kids’ uplift and growth, this is the amount that New Jersey plans to spend on each child it incarcerates in a state youth prison.

This is the investment that New Jersey has chosen to make in our kids — primarily our black and brown kids.

This waste of taxpayer dollars is only the tip of the iceberg of why New Jersey’s youth justice system is a failed experiment. New Jersey currently has the worst black to white youth incarceration disparity rate, and the second worst Latino/white youth incarceration disparity rate, in the nation. In our state, a black child is, incredibly, 30 times more likely to be detained or committed to a youth facility than a white child, while they commit most offenses at about the same rate. As a result, as of May 3, 2019, there are 205 kids committed to a juvenile justice facility in New Jersey — 150 black and only 16 white. And if you’re thinking this is necessary to meaningfully increase public safety, think again: Of the 377 youth released from commitment in state youth facilities in 2014, 76.9 percent had a new court filing or arrest, 58.9 percent had a new adjudication or conviction, and almost one-fourth (23.9 percent) were recommitted within three years of release. Rather than being incarcerated in failed youth prisons that don’t rehabilitate them, our young people need support, encouragement, and intensive treatment with wraparound services within their communities.

For all these reasons and more, the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and its partners in the 150 Years is Enough Campaign — which aims to close New Jersey’s three youth prisons and to reinvest funds in community-based programs — fought tirelessly, and were successful in bringing about, the announcement that the state would close Jamesburg and Hayes, two of the state’s youth prisons, and the creation of the Governor’s Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey. These were the first steps in our vision for a comprehensive transformation of New Jersey’s youth justice system — to include closure of the state’s three youth prisons, a reinvestment of dedicated funds in the communities most impacted by youth incarceration, and a review of existing youth facilities to see which can be closed or repurposed to better accommodate our young people who may need to be out of home for public safety reasons.

No community input

Yet, just three days after the task force’s first meeting in February, we were told that the state of New Jersey submitted a letter of intent to build a new youth prison in Newark on the polluted former Pabst Brewery site on South Orange Avenue. Not only was this letter submitted without community input or the task force’s recommendations, but it also came at a time when all three of the state’s youth prisons are at half capacity, as well as the state’s 11 existing non-secure youth facilities (as outlined on page D-264 of the governor’s budget), including one in Newark five minutes away from the proposed site.

This is not the kind of investment our kids need. We need investment in their future, not in their incarceration. At a time when $100 million has been proposed, rightfully, toward opioid treatment, we simply cannot commit $160 million toward three new youth prisons to incarcerate our primarily black and brown kids. Instead, we must make powerful investments to ensure that our kids never become system-involved in the first place and are granted every opportunity to grow and thrive in their communities.

This is why the 150 Years is Enough Campaign is holding its “Lock Arms to Unlock Our Kids” Rally on Saturday, May 18, at West Side High School in Newark at 1:30 pm. From there, we will march to the proposed youth prison site a few blocks away and capture an aerial photo of us locking arms around it — a powerful image that will convey to elected officials our solidarity in standing up for our children. At the rally, we will call on Gov. Murphy to halt New Jersey’s plans to invest $160 million into building three new youth prisons in the northern, central, and southern regions of the state. Instead, we are asking him to enact a transformative youth justice vision for our state by making substantial financial and other reparative and restorative investments in creating a community-based system of care that supports and affirms our kids.

We ask you to join us at the rally and sign on to our letter calling on the governor to affirmatively make positive investments in our kids, not investments in their incarceration.

When I was a teacher, I told my students that we needed to use our listening ears to understand the world around us. Join us as we call on Gov. Murphy to listen to the people’s unified cry: We do not need to build new youth prisons in Newark. Or anywhere else in New Jersey.

Andrea McChristian is the director of the Criminal Justice Reform Initiative at the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

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