Build up Children, not Prisons!–August 13, 2021

jail cell illustration


Dear People and Friends of the Diocese of New Jersey,

“… if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…” Galatians 6:1

photo of bill signing
On August 11, 2021, Acting Governor Shelia Oliver signs legislation creating a two-year Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths and Communities pilot program. It all took place at the Trenton Y.M.C.A.

“Build up children, not prisons.” “The system will not be right until we treat all New Jersey’s children as if they were our own” “A ‘game-changer!’” These were sentiments I heard this past Wednesday as I observed a landmark event. Our intrepid (and well-connected) Jubilee Officer, Canon Clara Gregory, made it possible for me, along with Canon Phyllis Jones and Mr. Fred Vereen of St. Michael’s in Trenton, to join many elected officials, community leaders and advocates to witness Acting Governor Shelia Oliver sign legislation creating a two-year Restorative and Transformative Justice for Youths and Communities pilot program. It all took place at the Trenton Y.M.C.A.

This legislation appropriates $8.4 million over two years to the Juvenile Justice Commission to develop more community-based, creative, developmentally appropriate, and humane processes of reintegrating young people released from juvenile facilities back into their communities.[1] Aimed at rehabilitation and restoration, not mere retribution, the pilot program is intended to prevent youth from becoming incarcerated in the first place by relying more heavily on local community means of addressing misbehaviors, violations of the law and being accountable to victims.[2] It is also aimed at reducing recidivism—repeated involvement with the youth justice system.

A press release issued by the Governor’s Office after Wednesday’s event provides a good summary of the program:

This program will develop innovative restorative and transformative justice continuums of care in four target cities—Camden, Newark, Paterson, and Trenton. The programs will include two components: community-based enhanced reentry wraparound services and restorative justice hubs. Community-based enhanced reentry wraparound services will include various social support services, such as employment assistance and mentoring services, while restorative justice hubs will be physical spaces within the community where youth and families can heal, reconnect and build healthy relationships, and help resolve local conflicts through dialogue instead of punitive measures.[3]

Our criminal justice system is broken. This is true across the nation. It is true in the State of New Jersey. The system has especially failed, and harmed, New Jersey’s youth, most notably, its Black and Brown youth. New Jersey has the worst youth incarceration racial disparity rate in the nation. In New Jersey, a Black youth is 21 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white youth, despite evidence that both commit crimes at an equal rate.[4] A Latino child is four times more likely to be locked up as a white child. A June 2020 report indicated that of the 141 youth incarcerated at the time, 91 were Black, 31 were Hispanic, and only 19 were White.[5] In 2020, New Jersey spent nearly $400,000 per incarcerated child in its system.[6] New Jersey spends $53 million on three secure youth facilities. It only spends $16 million on county-based community youth programs across the state.[7] We pay more to incarcerate a child in a New Jersey youth prison than we would pay to send that child to Princeton University![8] To add insult to injury, this broken system is all the product of a flawed/failed “war on drugs.”

As scholar, lawyer, and activist Michelle Alexander, author of the ground-breaking and well-researched book The New Jim Crow stated in an interview:

The wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States with the rise of the drug war and the get tough movement really flooded our schools. Schools, caught up in this maelstrom, began viewing children as criminals or suspects, rather than as young people with an enormous amount of potential struggling in their own ways and their own difficult context to make it and hopefully thrive. We began viewing the youth in schools as potential violators rather than as children needing our guidance.[9]

The result? A “School to Prison Pipeline” that has grossly impacted poor communities and children of color.[10]

The legislation signed by Acting Governor Oliver on Wednesday is a meaningful first step in addressing a broken, inefficient, failed, costly, systemically racist and unjust system that has not served New Jersey or its youth well. As State Senator Shirley Turner, a primary sponsor of the bill observed on Wednesday at the signing, “Restorative justice and transformative justice programs have been nationally recognized as the best practices in keeping young people out of the criminal justice system and successfully reintegrating them into their communities after being released from out-of-home placements.”[11]

I am excited that Trenton and Camden, two cities within the Diocese of New Jersey are included in the four identified communities where this initiative will be launched. It is my hope and prayer that our churches in Trenton and Camden will find ways to join with community partners such as Urban Promise Trenton and Camden, with whom we already have strong working relationships to engage in this important work in whatever ways possible.

As followers of Jesus Christ, we should all support this work. It is the work of reconciliation and healing. It is the mission of the Church.[12] It is not merely about the restoration and healing of the young people who get caught up in the criminal justice system in our state and in our nation, although that in itself is vitally important. It is, rather, a recognition that we have relied too heavily as a nation on notions of “retribution” and “punishment” without much, if any, concern, for rehabilitation and restoration. We have also not corrected the systemically racist constructs that undergird all our structures, including our criminal justice system. The results is a tremendously disparate application of “justice.” The legislation enacted into law on Wednesday represents an important, though modest, effort to address a wound in our national and state soul.

May God bless you and yours in Christ as we all strive to live into Christ’s love.

Faithfully yours in Christ,

Bishop Stokes's Signature

The Right Reverend William H. Stokes, D.D.
12th Bishop of New Jersey



[1] See Acting Governor Oliver Signs Legislation Establishing Juvenile Justice Pilot Program” – Published by on August 11, 2021 found at

[2] Ibid.

[3] See Acting Governor Oliver Signs Legislation Establishing Juvenile Justice Pilot Program” – art.cit.

[4] See “Policies and Positions – Youth Justice Transformation” authored by The New Jersey Institute for Social Justice – found on the website at

[5] See “Investing in Kids, Not Prisons: The Urgency of Transformative Youth Justice Reform in New Jersey” part of the 150 Years is Enough Campaign produced by the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice – found at

[6] See text of Assembly Bill No. 4663 State of New Jersey State Assembly – 219th Legislature – p. 2 found at

[7] Ibid.

[8] See “College Simply” Admission Calculator found at

[9] Sokolower, Jody “Michelle Alexander on The New Jim Crow and the school-to-prison pipeline “ – Rethinking Schools – December 20, 2011 found at

[10] See Flannery, Mary Ellen, “The School to Prison Pipe-Line – Time to Shut It Down” [published on the National Education Association website – January 5, 2015 found at

[11] See “Acting Governor Oliver Signs Legislation Establishing Juvenile Justice Pilot Program” – art.cit.

[12] See Book of Common Prayer (1979), p. 855. – The mission of the Church is to restore all people to unity with God and each other in Christ.