NEWARK, N.J. – Opposition is growing in Newark as word gets around that the state may build a new juvenile justice facility in the city’s west ward. According to officials and justice advocates, the state is eyeing a vacant lot near West Side High School as a place to build a new 48-bed facility.
Residents and politicians say a new youth prison in Newark is not happening.
"We do not want this building, this prison in our community at all. It’s non-negotiable," said Africa, who did not give his last name but identified himself as a life-long resident and a member of the New Africa Black Panther Party.
Community leaders echoed that call Wednesday.
"There is no way that we are going to let them build a prison in the city of Newark," said City Council President Mildred Crump at a community meeting inside Paradise Baptist Church this afternoon.
New Jersey is revamping its juvenile justice system.
Before leaving office, Governor Chris Christie announced plans to close two youth facilities in Monroe Township and Bordentown, N.J.
In October, Governor Phil Murphy formed a task force to help replace those facilities with three smaller rehabilitation centers across the state.
An empty lot on South Orange Avenue, home to the former Pabst Brewery, was identified as a possible location for one youth facility. It's in a residential area near three schools, including West Side High School.
"To disrespect the residents, the homeowners of that area and not even inform them," said Newark resident, Donna Jackson, "to not meet with the parents of West Side High School."
"It would never happen in any other municipality or any other county," added Gayle Chaneyfield Jenkins. a former councilwoman and Newark resident.
Newark Mayor Ras Baraka stated Monday, "A new youth prison in Newark is not happening."
“I support the concept of rehabilitative youth development centers," he said, "but existing youth facilities should be renovated for that purpose."
Last week, multiple civil rights groups sent a letter to Governor Murphy opposing any new youth prisons in the state.
It reads, in part: "...we urge you to commit substantial financial and other reparative and restorative investments into building up black children and communities, not into building new youth prisons to incarcerate them."
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice is planning to start an online petition later this week, as are Newark residents.
"This is also an environmentally compromised site," added Andrea McChristian, Director of the Criminal Justice Initiative with NJISJ. "We need no more youth prison beds in our state. Our three [youth] prisons are already at less than half capacity."
At today’s community meeting, community leaders called Governor Murphy contradictory.
He promised social justice and marijuana expungements, while instead, some feel they’re getting a youth prison and continued incarceration for black and brown people inequitably arrested for marijuana offenses.
"Governor, let our people go. Pardon our people immediately," decried Paradise Baptist Church Bishop Jethro C James.
Gov. Murphy and Newark Mayor Baraka released a joint statement Thursday morning on establishing a new, secure Youth Residential Center in the state.
“Over the past two decades, a bipartisan coalition of New Jersey leaders has worked to transform our juvenile justice system and make it a model for the rest of the country. And yet we still have much more work to do. Despite recent progress, New Jersey still owns the shameful distinction of having the largest black-white youth incarceration gap in the nation. To help reduce this disparity, we believe in the continued transformation of our juvenile justice system to prioritize treatment, rehabilitation, and positive reinforcement for young people.
“In October, Governor Murphy signed an executive order creating a Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice in New Jersey to ensure that our juvenile justice system reflects our values, including safety, dignity, and fairness. The Task Force is comprised of people directly impacted by the criminal justice system, juvenile justice agencies, and key community stakeholders and is charged with promoting strategies to reduce recidivism and provide recommendations to improve our juvenile justice system.
“New Jersey’s Juvenile Justice Commission is and will continue to be a national model for progressive reform. Since New Jersey began partnering with the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2004, New Jersey has reduced the number of juveniles detained in both county and state facilities by 80 percent – and youth of color account for more than 80 percent of this reduction. We remain committed to working with community stakeholders and various law enforcement agencies to ensure we employ best practices in continuing the tremendous work that the JJC has done to transform youth justice.
“These reductions in the juvenile detention population have allowed New Jersey to make significant progress towards its goal of closing the Jamesburg facility and moving towards a decentralized, community-based model that allows youths to receive best-in-the-nation rehabilitative and treatment services while being housed closer to home. The fact remains that a small number of juveniles engage in serious, violent conduct, and we must find a safe, secure way to house them – one that ensures public safety while also departing from the more punitive practices of the past.
“We look forward to the opening of smaller regional centers to allow young people the ability to be closer to their families and home communities. These regional sites will provide a secure residential setting for young offenders while providing treatment, rehabilitative services, and community space. Unfortunately, there has been misinformation spread over the past few days by those who are opposed to any sort of secure youth residential center.
“We remain deeply committed to transforming our juvenile justice system in New Jersey and look forward to working with advocates, community members, and partners in law enforcement to address the disparities in our incarcerated youth population.