NEWARK, NJ - Mayor Ras Baraka came out in support of establishing a new youth rehabilitation center in an undisclosed North Jersey location just days after saying no new ones should be built.

The flip flop comes amid a debate between the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice (NJISJ) and  Gov. Phil Murphy over the state’s murky plans to open new youth rehabilitation centers. The state is currently moving towards closing at least one of its three youth jails in exchange for rehabilitation and treatment centers.

The institute, an advocacy group that is also involved in the monitoring of the Newark Police Department, wants no new rehabilitation centers to open since the 11 existing ones in New Jersey are already below capacity. NJISJ said it was told three new centers would open, including one at the site of the former Pabst Blue Ribbon brewery near West Side High School.

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“There’s really no justification to build anything new,” said NJISJ’s Criminal Justice Reform Director Andrea McChristian. “There’s going to be an incentive to fill these new state of the art facilities.”

The institute said in a letter to the governor it wants all of the state youth prisons to close, since research shows black children are jailed more than white youth despite the same rates of offenses among both. It also wants money that would be used to build more rehabilitation centers to go towards community-based programs. 

Murphy announced in a joint statement today with Baraka a new secure youth residential center will open somewhere in North Jersey, but it was unclear where exactly. Spokespersons for Newark referred questions about the location to the governor’s office, and the governor’s office referred TAPinto Newark to the state Attorney General’s office.

A spokesperson for the Attorney General’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

“We look forward to the opening of smaller regional centers to allow young people the ability to be closer to their families and home communities,” the joint statement read. "These regional sites will provide a secure residential setting for young offenders while providing treatment, rehabilitative services, and community space.”

Newark already has transitional housing for boys. The Northern Region Independence and Re-entry Success Center is located on Central Avenue and has capacity for 25 boys. The institute said a few weeks ago the facility had no more than eight boys there. 

“The site that they’re trying to build on the old Pabst brewery is a five-minute drive from the existing youth facility home,” McChristian said. “It’s less than half empty.”

Baraka put out a statement about two days ago to dispel the idea that a new youth prison was going to be built in Newark. The institute, in a press release last week and its letter to the governor, referred to a new "youth prison" that would be built in Newark. 

Two days ago, the mayor said he wouldn’t want to see any new rehabilitative centers be built and wanted the money saved by closing youth prisons to go towards community-based programs instead. That was in line with what the institute has said.  

“I support the concept of rehabilitative youth development centers, but existing youth facilities should be renovated for that purpose,” Baraka’s initial statement read. “...The money saved by closing youth prisons and not constructing new buildings should be invested in strategic and comprehensive community engagement programs such as our newly formed Brick City Peace Collective and alternative policing strategies.”

Today’s joint statement about a new youth rehabilitation center appears to be a reversal from the mayor’s earlier statement. When asked why the mayor’s position changed, city spokesman Frank Baraff said the mayor may not have thought about the issue before signing off on the joint statement with the governor.

Baraff said he was unsure if the joint statement was announcing the construction of a new center or renovations for an older building. 

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