By Terry L. Richardson and Timothy Levi Jones
Black History Month 2017 is behind us now – the 28 days of the year marked for celebrating the great progress we’ve made as a people through many dangers and snares.
But the struggle for progress is one for every day of the year. That’s especially true for racial justice in New Jersey’s youth prisons, where there has been a significant reduction in the number of children incarcerated.
However, shameful racial disparities persist.
Despite numerous diversion and incarceration alternative programs in New Jersey’s juvenile justice system, black children are less likely to be diverted, and more likely to be incarcerated.
In New Jersey, black kids are 24.3 times more likely to be committed to a secure juvenile facility than their white counterparts, leading New Jersey to have the third-highest black-white commitment disparity rate in the nation. In fact, of the 289 young people currently committed to a state juvenile facility, almost three-quarters of them are black, according to the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice report, “Bring Our Children Home: Ain’t I A Child.”
But this is not because black youth commit more crimes than their white peers. Black and white youth commit offenses at about the same rate.
Instead, the disparities in our youth prisons reflect the same systemic racism that infects our adult incarceration system. And like our juvenile system, New Jersey’s adult system has also witnessed both a drop in the number of incarcerated adults and extreme racial disparities. In New Jersey, black adults are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than white adults, making our state home to the highest racial disparity rate in the country.
Black children are too often funneled into incarceration and denied the fundamental right to be treated as children, who make and learn from their mistakes, who are in need of care and community. We must change this unacceptable reality. As faith leaders, as people of conscience, it is our moral responsibility to lead the change in New Jersey’s system of incarceration for youth.
As religious leaders of all different faiths and denominations we recognize youth incarceration — and its inherent racial disparities — is an issue of morality, not just of policy.
And so, we have joined more than 20 faith leaders from across New Jersey as part of Faith Justice New Jersey, a coalition of faith leaders who endorse a transformation of our juvenile justice system into a system of community-based care.
We speak with one, unified, collective voice: people of conscience must come together to end this systemic assault on our most vulnerable children.
- We seek an end to the school to prison pipeline, which pushes out predominantly kids of color and criminalizes adolescent misbehavior.
- We seek an investment and expansion of community based treatment programs that keep children in their homes.
- And, when a child must be in a secure environment, we seek placement in a small, therapeutic and supportive facility with trauma-informed care.
Every February we’re asked to be reflect on our great history, celebrating the millions of unsung and unknown heroes who bled, marched, boycotted, sang, organized to dismantle Jim Crow and shepherd through the Voting Rights Act. But we are also reminded of the challenges that lie ahead every month of the year, and the work that remains to create a state and country in which Black Lives Matter.
Like those heroic soldiers for justice who came before us, those who declared, “Ain’t I a woman,” we must now answer the children who cry out, “Ain’t I a child.” Join us in this righteous struggle.
Dr. Rev. Terry L. Richardson is senior pastor of the First Baptist Church in South Orange.
Rev. Timothy Levi Jones is pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark.