New Jersey calls for a bigger investment in community-based programs to lower disparities in the juvenile justice system
New Jersey has made progress in lowering the number of incarcerated juveniles. From 1997 to 2010, the confined youth population was cut by 53 percent. These efforts should be applauded.
Unfortunately, there are other statistics that are far less commendable—those showing distressing racial disparities.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice found that 73 percent of children in juvenile facilities are black. In its study, “Ain’t I A Child?” it was quickly noted that this incarceration rate was not because black youths are inherently more criminal. They are not the “super-predators” that they were labeled in the ’90s. According to the study, “Instead, these incredibly, stark racial disparities reflect racially discriminatory policy decisions and practices.”
Young brains are still developing. Wresting these black children from their homes and communities takes a terrible toll on them during their period of maturation. And it takes a toll on taxpayers. New Jersey spends $63,554,000 a year to run three youth prisons. That’s an astonishing $196,133 to keep one youth locked up for a year. In contrast, tuition, fees, room and board at the highly ranked College of New Jersey is only $28,674. To look at it differently, seven kids could go to college for every one who is incarcerated. Many of the detained youth have committed minor crimes or have violated probation by not paying fines or not showing up for drug tests. “As a result, our young people can be placed back in youth prison due to circumstances often outside of their control—such as transportation issues, changing court dates, and poverty.”
The disparity is not confined to black youth. Those with disabilities are hard hit, as well. Nationwide, one in three juveniles arrested has a disability—though that number may be more like 70 percent. Forty-four percent of incarcerated kids in New Jersey need special education.
Powerful proposals offer hope
“Ain’t I A Child?” doesn’t stop at only presenting the bad-news statistics. It makes some powerful proposals on how to rectify the situation. They include calling on the legislature to reevaluate the state’s sentencing structure and put policies into place that will keep young offenders who aren’t a serious risk to public safety out of jail. The attorney general is called on to combat the “disproportionate minority contact in detention centers and youth prisons.”
But the first proposal, the one we feel most important, is taking funds now spent on detention facilities and spending them on community-based programs that focus on intervention, prevention, diversion and incarceration alternatives. Such programs have been shown to keep youth out of the judicial system in the first place and extricate them sooner if they do get involved.
“Research has shown that, in contrast to the negative consequences of incarcerating children, placing at-risk youth in community-based programs with comprehensive services lowers recidivism rates at a fraction of the cost of operating youth prisons. New Jersey should therefore work to comprehensively transform its current juvenile justice system into a community-based system of care.”
And to that, we say, it can’t happen soon enough.