On June 28, I gathered with clergy colleagues, and hundreds of others in Monroe Township, outside an iron gate with the words “State Home for Boys” hanging over our heads. The New Jersey Training School for Boys, also known as Jamesburg, is the state’s largest youth incarceration facility. We gathered 150 years after the facility opened, on June 28, 1867, to protest that 150 years is enough.
The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice and Youth Justice New Jersey launched this campaign to close Jamesburg and the Juvenile Female Secure Care and Intake Facility (also known as Hayes) and to focus on rehabilitation, intensive and developmentally appropriate wrap-around services, and smaller facilities closer to children’s parents instead of locking them away in youth prisons.
Along with my clergy colleagues, I was asked to share thoughts about why I supported this campaign. I could have talked about the racially discriminatory juvenile justice system which includes only six percent of white children, although statistics prove that children of all races and ethnicities get into trouble and make mistakes at the same rate. I could have discussed the recidivism rate, where studies show that long-term youth incarceration increases recidivism. I thought of sharing my perspective as a tax-paying resident because it costs $200,000 per year to lock up a single child in these facilities, where rehabilitation and local wrap-around services cost one-fifth of that. Ultimately, I spoke, as I always try to do, from a place of Torah.
Judaism is rooted in the idea that is introduced at the creation of humanity, that every human being is created in the image of God. How we treat each individual is then a reflection of how we treat the divine. If we seek to see the divine spark within each child, then we must love them, not lock them away. We must educate them, not incarcerate them. Even the Jewish legal system of halacha understands that children’s minds are developing and those mistakes are normal. The reason minors are not obligated to do the majority of time-bound commandments is because they need to be taught the difference between right and wrong. It is then the responsibility of the community as a whole to teach, not punish, our children.
Paramount to our theology is an accepting God that enables us to do teshuvah and repent daily. The act of teshuvah allows for one to have a clean slate and start over, but it is also an acceptance of our imperfections, understanding that no matter how hard we try, we will continue to make mistakes.
Our responsibility is not to push our loved ones away when those mistakes are made. In my opinion, Judaism clearly directs us to educate and embrace our children. For this reason, as a parent, as a rabbi, as a Jew, and as a resident of this state, I believe that the only answer is to close Jamesburg and to close Hayes. Let us see each child as made in God’s image, and we should honor God by joining this campaign.
Faith leaders in New Jersey can add their names to a statement calling for a transformation of the juvenile justice system by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. The statement, with signatures, can be found on the website of the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.