New Jersey has made giant strides in the number of kids behind bars, but a new report from the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice uncovers significant racial disparities in the state's youth prisons.

Prison Cell Bars (DanHenson1, ThinkStock)
DanHenson1, ThinkStock

According to the report released Tuesday, nearly 75 percent of the 289 minors currently committed to a state juvenile facility are black, despite little difference between the rates of crime among black and white youth.

"In New Jersey, a black kid is 24 times more likely to be committed to a secure juvenile facility than a white child, giving New Jersey the third-highest black-white commitment disparity rate in the entire nation," said Andrea McChristian, the report's primary author. "The disproportion comes down to policy choices and a conscious decision of which kids deserve to be locked up, and which should be treated like kids."

While giving credit to the state for cutting the youth incarceration rate in half between 1997 and 2010, the Newark nonprofit said New Jersey can still focus more sharply on diverting children "out of the system" and into rehabilitative alternatives.

The group's policy brief said funneling youth into incarceration is a poor use of state funds. As of 2014, the state spent more than $196,000 annually on one young inmate, it said. It also said the state's secure facilities — such as the New Jersey Training School for Boys and the Female Secure Care and Intake Facility — are largely underutilized.

"What's more, research has shown that youth prisons actually increase rather than decrease recidivism rates, so youth incarceration is not having a positive effect on public safety," McChristian said.

According to the report, more than 550 young people are ensnared in the juvenile justice system — either behind bars or through probation or aftercare.

Responding to the report, Sharon Lauchaire of the Juvenile Justice Commission said New Jersey has made great progress in reducing the number of young people who are incarcerated, in large part as the result of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. Minorities account for most of the reduction, she said.

"Notwithstanding these successes, our state faces the same challenges faced by most of the nation in terms of making real inroads into eliminating disproportionate minority contact with the justice system," Lauchaire said in an emailed statement. "The JJC houses youth placed in its care as the result of decisions made by local law enforcement, attorneys and the courts."

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