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New OJJDP Initiative Promotes Community-Based Alternatives to Youth Incarceration

Blog by OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan

By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator 

Far too many young people are housed in juvenile justice facilities, and often their detention does more harm than good. Community-based alternatives—working with youth where they live—achieve better results than warehousing youth in prisons. 

We currently spend an estimated $5 billion per year to incarcerate children. And research shows that locking up kids doesn’t work. This money is better spent on community-based alternatives, which are safer and more effective and offer youth the tools they need to grow into responsible citizens. 

In 2019, residential facilities held approximately 36,500 young people on a given day. While that is roughly half the number of youth held a decade ago, it is still too high. Confinement separates young people from their families and communities at a pivotal stage in their development; it delays their psychosocial development and hinders their transition to adulthood. 

I have three top priorities as OJJDP Administrator. First, treating kids as kids. Second, serving them at home, with their families and in their communities. And third, opening up opportunities for young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. At the core of each of these priorities is my commitment to partnering with youth and families directly impacted by the juvenile justice system, and my pledge to pursue racial equity and fairness. 

Youth of color and LGBTQI+ youth continue to be overrepresented in the juvenile justice system. Black youth represent the largest share of youth confined for an offense—41 percent in 2019. And studies show that young people identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer are twice as likely as their heterosexual peers to be arrested and detained for status and other nonviolent offenses.

Our children deserve better. 

Americans overwhelmingly favor rehabilitation over incarceration—getting kids the services they need in their communities, not behind locked doors. In fact, a recent poll showed that a majority of Americans support closing youth prisons, and more than three-quarters support using financial incentives to encourage states and municipalities to develop alternatives to youth incarceration.

We have the expertise and resources to design and implement developmentally appropriate, community-based services for our young people. We must take every step possible to keep youth out of detention centers and correctional facilities. 

One of OJJDP’s latest solicitations—the FY 2022 Community-Based Alternatives to Youth Incarceration Initiative—supports this goal. I invite state governments to apply for funding under the initiative, which is intended to: 

  • Support state efforts to close and repurpose youth correctional facilities,
  • Assess and respond to the impact of closures on facility staff and surrounding communities, and
  • Reinvest state and local resources to support more effective community-based services and supports for justice-involved youth and their families.

Engaging youth and families is integral to my priorities for OJJDP. That’s why OJJDP is launching a Youth and Family Partnership Working Group, and it’s why the Community-Based Alternatives to Youth Incarceration Initiative expects funded programs to engage with justice-involved youth and their families in ways that honor and incorporate their experiences and insights. Our office recognizes the unique insights youth have into their own needs, and the support and guidance their families can offer. 

If you’re interested in applying for funding under the Community-Based Alternatives to Youth Incarceration Initiative, consider attending a solicitation-specific webinar on July 21, 2022, to learn more about the program and the application process. The deadline to apply is July 25, 2022.

You may have heard me say this before, but it merits repeating: OJJDP envisions a nation where all children are free from crime and violence. Youth contact with the justice system should be rare, fair, and beneficial. That’s OJJDP’s vision statement. I invite you to join me in making it reality.

Date Published: July 11, 2022