NEWARK, NJ - Two weeks after the governor’s office released a statement announcing a new secure youth residential center in North Jersey, Governor Phil Murphy stood before a crowd of Black, Christian faith leaders and members at the African Methodist Episcopal Church New Jersey Annual Conference asking for support, ensuring that his vision for a progressive state includes social-justice oriented criminal justice reform to change predatory laws and systems that disproportionately keep black people behind bars.

Part of his path toward progress is legalizing regulated adult-use marijuana and allowing thousands to get marijuana convictions expunged. More than 32,000 people a year in New Jersey are arrested for marijuana possession, many of whom are young people of color though marijuana use is similar among races.

The bill halted in March due to a lack of support in the Senate, however, marijuana may have another chance to pass next month after the Assembly and Senate voting session scheduled for late May. Newark leaders want marijuana records expunged without recreational legalization but Murphy urges critics to reconsider.

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“I firmly believe that the $140 million per year we spend now adjudicating low-level marijuana possession offenses, would be better spent being reinvested in our communities, rather than in leaving too many of our residents with a stain on their records that blocks them from education or a job,” said Murphy.

His criminal justice reform efforts include reexamining the State Parole Board to ensure fair parole decisions and his call for the full restoration of voting rights for individuals currently on parole or probation.

The state parole board remains predominantly white, though New Jersey disproportionately arrests people of color. When individuals appear before the parole board, they should stand before someone that resembles the life or background of the individuals, said the Rev. Dr. Ronald Slaughter, a social activist and pastor of Saint James AME Church in Newark.

Slaughter was nominated to serve on the parole board in July of last year along with the Reverend Dr. Kenneth L. Saunders, who was nominated to serve as an alternate on the parole board. The Senate has not yet approved their nominations along with more than 70 other nominees.

When it comes to youth, New Jersey has a 30-to-1 black to white ratio in the youth incarceration rate, the worst in the nation. Murphy signed an Executive Order in October creating a Task Force for the Continued Transformation of Youth Justice focused on reducing recidivism and racial disparities as one of their core functions.

The Rev. Dr. Charles Franklin Boyer, pastor at Bethel AME Church in Woodbury is a member of Murphy’s youth justice taskforce and wants the $160 million the state will pay for new youth rehabilitation centers redirected toward trauma-based care and diversion to keep black youth out of prison.

“Youth commit delinquent offenses at similar rates but white youth are given treatment and black youth are given incarceration,” Boyer told TAPinto Newark. “It's important that the black community goes to its black prophetic roots, speak passionately about this and demand liberation, the abolition of youth prisons.”

Boyer is also the founder of Salvation and Social Justice, an organization that organizes faith-based groups to affect public policy, particularly targeting economic and racial justice.

Salvation and Social Justice joined over 50 other organizations for New Jersey Institute for Social Justice’s 150 Years Is Enough rally to close Jamesburg and Hayes juvenile detention centers in June 2017 and continues to advocate for prevention, not punishment.

Slaughter has a long track record of social justice advocacy work tied to his ministry. Though he is critical that the church has become more interested in promoting individual prosperity and that it lost its radical, civil justice-oriented roots to fight for their brothers and sisters in the pews.

“Justice in the community has emanated from the black church in terms of black lives,” said Slaughter, as he evoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. “How can you preach the glories of heaven and your people are living in an earthly hell?”