TRENTON – New Jersey is going to try a new approach to juvenile justice in four cities that aims to better support young people released from juvenile facilities back to their communities – or better yet, prevent them from getting involved with the system in the first place.

The “Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths and Communities” pilot program will operate in Camden, Newark, Paterson and Trenton with two components: enhanced community-based reentry services, such as employment help and mentoring, and restorative justice hubs.

Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who signed the bill into law as acting governor while Gov. Phil Murphy is on vacation in Italy, said the goal is the program is to be less punitive and more age-appropriate in how the state approaches juvenile justice.

“Just like no child is born not being able to fulfill his or her potential, no child should be thrown away and written off,” Oliver said.

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Restorative justice hubs are described by state officials this way: physical spaces within the community where youth and families can heal, reconnect and build healthy relationships and help resolve local conflicts through dialogue instead of punitive measures.

“Restorative justice hubs are the community-imagined alternative to punitive responses to being a child without the community support,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer, founder of Salvation and Social Justice.

“This law is historic as a first step as we look build kids and not prisons,” said Boyer, who is now pastor of Greater Mount Zion A.M.E. Church in Trenton.

“The creation of this pilot program reflects an investment in the futures of our young people, rather than investment in their downfall,” said Andrea McChristian, law and policy director for the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

The pilot program will cost $8.4 million over two years. Sen. Shirley Turner, D-Mercer, said that given the exorbitant costs of youth detention, it’s money well spent even beyond the benefits to the youth.

“This is not just a good bill,” Turner said. “This is a gamechanger for the state of New Jersey as well as the taxpayers of New Jersey.”

Acting Attorney General Andrew Bruck said the new law can help address “unacceptable” racial disparities in New Jersey’s youth justice system, which are wider than in any other state.

“The reality is that we won’t fix this system until we treat every child in the system as if they were our own,” Bruck said.

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