New Jersey has increased the amount spent on incarcerating youth by 370% in the last two decades. Over the same time period, state funding on efforts meant to keep kids out of prison, or from returning once they're released, has increased by only 50%.

A report released Wednesday by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice suggests funding is inadequate for the state's Youth Services Commissions, the county bodies responsible for planning and funding programs and services related to youth prevention, diversion and reentry.

Beyond a reassessment of the way the Juvenile Justice Commission funds the Commissions, the report puts forth a handful of policy proposals aimed at making YSCs more effective. Many people are unaware the Commissions exist, and their role in the well-being of New Jersey's children, the Institute states.

“Instead of building new prisons that would act as an incentive to fill beds with our children, the state should be building up our kids with community-based programming on the front end that keeps kids in their communities,” said Andrea McChristian, primary author and director of the Institute's Criminal Justice Reform Initiative. “Yet, New Jersey has failed to prioritize Youth Services Commissions, which are designed to do just that.”

The report is a third in a series focusing on proposed solutions to "New Jersey's broken and racially discriminatory youth justice system." A black child, the Institute notes, is 30 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child, even though they commit most offenses at similar rates.

As of May 1, there were 158 incarcerated youth, of which eight were white. Between 1998 and 2018, the state's incarcerated youth population decreased by 70%.

Among their tasks, YSCs are expected to inform the public about the unique justice issues faced by youth. But, according to the report, the Commissions have been plagued "for years" by a lack of community engagement, transparency and accountability.

"It is time that we bring the voices of youth and parents into this important process," Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter, D-Passaic, said during a teleconference on the report. "In far too many counties in our state, community members are not fully involved in the YSC process."

Among the report's recommendations is a mandate that at least two YSC seats be held by a youth and parent directly impacted by the youth justice system. The report also wants the state to require that YSCs meet during the weekend or evening, at a neutral, community-based location, in order to maximize community participation. The proposal also calls for the requirement that each YSC maintain a website with all relevant information.

According to the Institute, New Jersey will spend $289,287 to incarcerate each child in the state's youth prison system this year.

"Just imagine the good we could do if $289,287 per child was instead invested into effective community-based programs for our state's most at-risk youth," McChristian said.

When reached for comment, the Juvenile Justice Commission told New Jersey 101.5 it had nothing to add.

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