By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator
Fulfilling OJJDP's mission requires us to listen—to young people, their families, and the grantees we support. As the only federal agency focused solely on youth who are involved in—or who are at risk for involvement in—the juvenile justice system, OJJDP must identify and address needs in communities nationwide. It's our mandate. Stakeholders in the field have perspectives and insights we need—and want—to hear.
Site visits give us a chance to meet grantees and other stakeholders in the communities they call home, to listen, engage, and observe up close, in person. OJJDP funds initiatives that demonstrate a commitment to our ideals: pursuing justice for young people and creating a country where all children are free from crime and violence. During the solicitation process, applicants tell us their goals and methodologies—and when we extend funding, it's because we believe in a program's potential. Grantees write performance reports to tell us their progress. Site visits bring performance reports to life.
As OJJDP Administrator, I recently had the honor of visiting Salt Lake City for a Utah leadership convening and program site visits. Seven OJJDP colleagues joined me for the meeting (see photo), which focused on efforts to reform and reinvest in Utah's juvenile justice system. Many thanks to Brett Peterson, Director of Utah’s Division of Juvenile Justice Services, who invited us to visit. We are also grateful to the Council of Juvenile Justice Administrators—our grantee and partner—for suggesting that OJJDP participate in the convening.
As Mr. Peterson explained to us during his presentation, the state's Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services has adopted the Youth Services Model—a "no wrong door" approach emphasizing early intervention, with individualized services driven by the strengths and needs of the young people and families served. The goal is to become involved in young lives before they engage in delinquent behaviors.
For youth already involved in the juvenile justice system, OJJDP funding is helping to support Utah's implementation of a 2019 law requiring automatic appointment of legal counsel in delinquency court proceedings and the presence of legal counsel at every stage of those proceedings. Funded under OJJDP's fiscal year 2019 Enhancing Youth Defense program, the grant supports training, practice tools, and the development of a dedicated community of practice to expand the pool of highly specialized youth defenders and standardize youth defense practice across the state. The project's goal is to ensure that all youth in Utah's juvenile justice system have equal access to high-quality, specialized legal representation, regardless of their financial circumstances.
The OJJDP team made several program site visits while in Utah. Breakfast with stakeholders was an opportunity for a roundtable discussion about programs for youth and the history of youth justice in the state. We were joined by state legislators, representatives from the Utah Governor's Office, and other state officials. Over coffee, I learned about legislation passed in 2023 that resulted in several reforms to the juvenile justice system. For example, school administrators no longer respond to truancy with an immediate student referral to the Division of Juvenile Justice and Youth Services. Instead, students must first be directed to "alternative programming"—such as a mobile crisis outreach team or youth services center.
After breakfast, we headed to the Salt Lake Valley Youth Center, where we met with youth services plan managers, the care coordinators for youth performing community volunteer work—a form of early intervention. We also met with youth and staff from Day Skills Intervention, a program for young people who are on probation and—historically—would have been housed in youth detention or placed in custody. The program allows them to remain in the community and receive the services they need on-site, such as schooling, vocational training, and a range of clinical support, including therapy and treatment for drug use disorders.
We closed the day at Live for Life Aspen, a non-secure residential program for young people leaving secure care. Live for Life offers wrap-around services to assist youth as they reenter the community, focusing on reuniting families and fostering youth access to the resources they need.
We had an extraordinary visit to Salt Lake City. I especially valued the access we received to explore so many programs and services, and to meet such a range of stakeholders—from elected officials to youth currently living in residential placement. It was a privilege to meet one-on-one with people in the field, to observe their interactions, and to learn directly from their experiences and knowledge. They all had unique insights and stories to share, and I am grateful for their candor.
We witnessed OJJDP's values in action. The programs we visited listen to and learn from youth, and they are committed to real reform, emphasizing intervention and prevention services over punishment. My staff and I agreed—in addition to being a good model for how we approach future site visits, our experiences in Salt Lake City will inform the assistance we offer to grantees in the future and the services and approaches we support for youth and their families.
Program site visits are terrific team-building exercises for everyone involved. I look forward to meeting more of our grantees in their home communities, and to learning firsthand how various localities are approaching juvenile justice reform and working to improve outcomes for youth.