By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator
October is Youth Justice Action Month—YJAM—an annual observance that’s all about action on behalf of—and with—America’s young people. OJJDP takes the word “action” very seriously. Action can change lives.
YJAM is especially significant for OJJDP because justice for youth is the motivation for everything we do. We are committed to ensuring their welfare and providing opportunities and tools that expand their chances for success. We work to enhance and reform the juvenile justice system—to rid it of racial and ethnic disparities, for example, and achieve equity for all. And we are committed to listening to and learning from youth with firsthand experience of the juvenile justice system—to hearing their insights on what works, what doesn’t, and why.
OJJDP is cohosting YJAM 2023 with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network—CJJ and NJJN. Our first event—a kickoff webinar on October 3—centered on the wisdom young people bring to conversations about the challenges youth face.
Alani Rouse, NJJN’s Youth Program Organizer, described her start in youth advocacy at age 17, after numerous encounters with the juvenile justice and mental health systems. She found her voice and she discovered it mattered, she said.
“I learned how to advocate for myself. I learned how to host roundtable discussions and events with elected officials, and I’m now here as the youth organizing manager with NJJN, which is one of the organizations that was integral in the process for me,” she said. “So it’s a full-circle moment.” When asked to share tips for others looking to host youth roundtables or grow their youth involvement, she offered several, including:
- Be intentional. You can find young people everywhere, so look for them. Invite them to be involved and to speak out. “You might be responsible for helping to facilitate somebody’s genius,” she said.
- Be honest about your organization’s goals and what you hope youth will contribute, and give them space “to be their whole selves,” she said. “I know there have been moments and opportunities where I have felt uncomfortable because I didn’t feel like my whole self was welcome. And so when you make it known to them that all of them is welcome—they can come in whatever they want to, they can wear whatever they want to, they can look how they want to—that makes them a lot happier to show up.”
The kickoff webinar launched 5 weeks of YJAM 2023 events. OJJDP is emphasizing a different message each week, drawn from our three priorities and the principles that ground our work:
- Week 1—Treat Children as Children. Research tells us that young brains are still developing and are capable of change. OJJDP is committed to supporting opportunities and services for youth that meet them where they are—both cognitively and emotionally.
- Week 2—Advance Racial Equity and Fairness. Too many young people encounter marginalization and racism every day, in every aspect of their lives—including the juvenile justice system, where youth of color are disproportionately represented. OJJDP is committed to system reforms that guarantee impartiality, equity, and fairness.
- Week 3—Open Up Opportunities for System-Involved Youth. Youth who spend time in the juvenile justice system need—and deserve—guidance and opportunities to move forward in life. We must ensure they have access to the same programs and services as their non-system-involved peers.
- Week 4—Center Impacted Youth and Families. OJJDP is committed to partnering with youth and families who are directly impacted by the juvenile justice system. We listen to and learn from them, and we strive to incorporate their insights in everything we do.
- Week 5—Serve Children at Home, With Their Families, in Their Communities. Community-based programs have been shown to positively impact youth behavior and reduce reoffending. These programs emphasize therapeutic and educational approaches, offering youth a chance for better outcomes while also holding them accountable.
The YJAM 2023 theme is “Justice Is….” It sounds incomplete, but that’s by design. Your definition of justice reflects who you are—where you live, how you live, and dozens of other factors. What does justice mean to you? I invite you to attend YJAM 2023 events, tell us your perspective, and partner with us. Please visit OJJDP's YJAM webpage for videos about YJAM, details about upcoming events, and links to a long list OJJDP resources on issues related to youth justice.
YJAM was founded after the tragic death of a teenage boy while he was in solitary confinement in an adult jail. Jonathan McClard had endured repeated threats and beatings by some of the adults held there. He died by suicide—3 days after his seventeenth birthday.
Jonathan’s mother, Tracy McClard, became an advocate for juvenile justice reform and an end to prosecuting and incarcerating youth in the adult criminal justice system. OJJDP shared Ms. McClard’s goal then and we share it now. We proudly continue YJAM-- the movement she started --to raise awareness about young people who are impacted by juvenile justice system, and to spark action on their behalf.