By Erin Delmore
“Youth prisons are failing our children in this state, but particularly our children of color,” explained Andrea McChristian from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.
If you take a look inside New Jersey’s juvenile justice system you’ll see the racial disparities laid bare. Seventy-five percent of incarcerated kids are black. That gap among races is the third-highest in the country.
McChristian said, “The research shows that a black kid in New Jersey is 24 times more likely to be sentenced to confinement than a white child. And this starts at arrest where black kids are more likely to be arrested. They’re less likely to be diverted and they’re more likely to end up in our state’s youth prisons.”
It’s a trend that’s existed for decades, and while the issue is getting more attention these days, the stats remain the same, according to a new report by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice. McChristian is its lead author.
She said, “It’s not because black kids are somehow more criminally culpable than white children. Actually, there are few differences between black kids and white kids in terms of delinquent behavior, in terms of committing status offenses — which are offenses that are only criminalized if you’re a minor, like underage drinking. So this is actually about policy.”
Fred Fogg is the regional director of operations for New Jersey and Delaware at Youth Advocate Programs. He works to engage kids and their families in community-based alternatives to jail time. At around $75 a day, those alternatives run at just a fraction of the cost of full-time confinement which can hit above $500 a day — nearly $200,000 a year per person.
Fogg said, “Most of the youths that are incarcerated are for nonviolent offenses.”
Fogg says alternative programs that keep kids in the community cut down recidivism rates. As it stands now, three out of four kids are re-arrested. Nearly half land themselves back in jail within three years.
“White youth involved in juvenile justice issues tend to have better access to diversion programs than African American youth,” Fogg said.
The number of incarcerated kids in New Jersey has fallen by half over the last two decades as some offenders found their way to diversion programs. But according to the report, that just widened the gap between black and brown and white.
“When we look at young black boy or a young Latino boy. What do we think about them? Do we really believe that the prison is the best place for them to be in? Is that where we are truly going to rehabilitate them?” questioned Kathy Wright of the New Jersey Parents Caucus.
“We need to start realizing that these are children. That the research has show that the adolescent brain is still developing and that deviant or anti-social behavior peaks at age 16 and 17 and then declines as a child matures, but we aren’t thinking that. We aren’t thinking that ok locking a kid away who is honestly going to age out of this type of behavior, doesn’t make sense,” said McChristian.
Fogg said, “They’ve gone in these facilities as children and they’re coming back chronologically as adults, but they’re not developing into men in correctional facilities. They’re on pause for the most part.”
With a new administration taking shape, McChristian says she expects reform at the federal level to come slowly. Instead, her organization is looking toward local and state level policy changes which have proven effective, in New Jersey, when it comes to bail reform and reentry initiatives.