By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator
Black Americans make integral contributions to every aspect of American life, from our cultural fabric to our international stature. Every February, Black History Month invites us to highlight those contributions, to remember and celebrate their role in U.S. history.
When I think about the achievements of Black youth and the hope they represent for the future, I remember young people like Kyla. Last year, Kyla told OJJDP about her teenage years, when she was labeled "delinquent" and a "PIN"—a person in need of supervision—for repeatedly running away from home. A judge removed Kyla from her mother's custody and sentenced her to youth detention. After 5 months, Kyla entered foster care; she later experienced homelessness. But Kyla personified tenacity; her struggles fueled the decisions she made for the future. By her early 20s, Kyla had already graduated from college, worked as a research assistant, completed a fellowship, performed outreach and intake at a legal center serving survivors of sex trafficking—the list goes on. Kyla flourished.
I also think about youth like James, who participated in the Ready to Achieve Mentoring Program (RAMP), an OJJDP grantee that serves young people with disabilities who are involved in—or are at risk for involvement in—the juvenile justice system. James' teachers suggested he enroll in the career-focused mentoring program. RAMP took James on workplace visits, taught him practical employment skills, and helped him develop goals. James discovered that setting clear goals helped him stay motivated, and his confidence grew. "I've learned how to talk to people. I know that I have to give respect to get respect," James told OJJDP. "I am much more prepared for the workplace, and I'm not afraid to advocate for myself and others."
The achievements of Kyla and James—and of millions of other young Black Americans—are especially impressive when we acknowledge the barriers youth of color encounter every day, including disparities in educational, occupational, and housing opportunities, and in their treatment by the juvenile justice system.
In addition to commemorating achievements from the past, Black History Month is a time to consider the ways this country can better serve our Black children. There are many. Consider a few facts:
- Black youth made up approximately 17 percent of the U.S. youth population in 2020 but were the victims in more than half (57 percent) of youth homicides.
- In 2020, Black youth were 2.3 times more likely than their white peers to be arrested.
- In 2019, Black youth were 4.4 times more likely than their white peers to be in residential placement.
OJJDP is committed to serving all youth with equity and fairness, and to effecting juvenile justice system reforms that guarantee impartiality and promote community-based alternatives to youth incarceration. Last fiscal year, we reintroduced the Juvenile Justice System Reform and Reinvestment Initiative to support state efforts to reduce reoffending by youth, improve youth outcomes, and end racial and ethnic disparities. States will reinvest cost savings into proven prevention and intervention programs for young people.
Other Office efforts to combat racial and ethnic disparities include strengthening resources available to states for data collection and analysis. Under the Juvenile Justice and Reform Act of 2018, states must develop work plans for reducing racial and ethnic disparities in their juvenile justice systems. OJJDP is offering technical assistance to help states develop and implement those work plans, to identify strategies that work to reduce disparities.
I hope you'll join me and OJJDP in commemorating Black History Month—in celebrating our young people's achievements while recommitting ourselves to systems and services that help them fulfill their promise.