TRENTON — There’s a push underway in the Legislature to allocate nearly $17 million over two years for efforts focused on revamping New Jersey’s youth justice system, specifically focused on Camden, Newark, Paterson and Trenton.

The bill, A4663/S2924, has gotten a hearing but no votes and has become a leading priority for civil-rights organizations and like-minded lawmakers, who say the state spends $56 million a year to run its three secure juvenile facilities but only $16 million on funds for community-based youth programs.

“The new normal needs to be restorative,” said Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic. “We need to invest in those efforts because it’s proven time and time again with New Jersey having the highest number of incarceration and recidivism rates for young people: It’s not working.”

Ninety people with less than a year left on their sentences have been released early from juvenile facilities due to the coronavirus, which has infected 37 youth and 80 staff at Juvenile Justice Commission facilities.

It’s critical to support them with programs and resources so they don’t return, said Assemblywoman Verlina Reynolds Jackson, D-Mercer.

“It’s time that New Jersey makes a strategic investment in building up our youth instead of youth school-to-prison pipelines that we so often hear about and see,” Reynolds Jackson said. “The same financial investments that’s made to incarcerate our youth should be made to sustain their daily lives as well.”

The proposed two-year Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths and Communities Pilot Program would be funded by diverting $8.4 million a year for two years, about 20% of the youth prison budget, into community-based enhanced re-entry services such as mental health, substance abuse treatment and life skills.

There would also be restorative justice hubs in four cities – Camden, Newark, Paterson and Trenton – to provide physical spaces where youth and families can resolve conflict, heal, reconnect and build healthy relationships.

“This bill can be the beginning of a new trend in New Jersey to build up our kids instead of tearing them down,” said Jessica Laus, co-chair of the New Jersey Restorative Justice Network.

“This is not merely throwing money at a problem but actually creating programs, designing them to engage our youth and making sure that they become productive citizens,” said Trenton Mayor Reed Gusciora.

“It’s a lot of children,” said Gene Bouie, director of operations for the Henry J. Austin Health Center in Trenton. “And so that money being reinvested in the children themselves gives us a bigger bang for our buck. The trauma is real in our urban cities. And the system has failed these children.”

New Jersey has the nation’s highest Black to white youth incarceration racial disparity rate, with a Black youth 21 times more likely to be detained or committed. Almost one-fourth of youth released from state juvenile facilities in 2014 were recommitted to a facility within three years.

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