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Priorities That Keep Kids' Best Interests at the Heart of What We Do

Blog by OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan

By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator 

For more than 25 years, I’ve worked with stakeholders in the field to advance youth justice reform. Together, we collaborated to reauthorize the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act and strengthen its four core protections. We also strived to replace youth incarceration with community-based services that produce better outcomes for youth and more effectively advance public safety.

When I accepted President Biden’s invitation to lead OJJDP, I pledged to be a steward in service to the field and continue that collaboration and partnership. The priorities I set for OJJDP are deeply informed by my work with the stakeholders in the juvenile justice field and reflect their concerns and aspirations. Underpinning these collective priorities is a strong foundation of research and data on what works, and what does not work, in the area of youth justice. 

The three priorities that will guide the work we pursue together are:

  • Treating children as children. Kids are not “little adults;” they have unique developmental stages and needs. When designing and implementing programs, OJJDP and our grantees will consider and rely on scientific research into child and adolescent brain development. We must ensure our services meet kids where they are, both cognitively and emotionally.
  • Serving youth at home, with their families and in their communities. Community-based alternatives to incarceration keep our communities safe while holding youth accountable for their actions. In fact, they are far more effective than incarceration—and they are widely accepted. The American public overwhelmingly supports juvenile justice reforms that favor community-based alternatives over confinement. Like all of us, justice-involved youth are more likely to thrive when surrounded by people they know, trust, and can count on. 
  • Opening up opportunities for young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system. OJJDP believes that youth contact with the justice system should be rare, fair, and beneficial. That means ensuring that system-involved young people have access to the same programs and opportunities that other youth have, to give them the best chance at a fulfilling and productive future.

At the heart of each of these priorities is an unwavering commitment—shared Office-wide—to racial equity and fairness, and a promise to listen to and partner with young people and families who have been directly impacted by the juvenile justice system. Our work must recognize and confront the marginalization and racism that too many youth encounter every day, in every aspect of their lives. And we must learn from the experiences of those who have experienced the juvenile justice system firsthand to better understand what works, what doesn’t, and why.

I know that OJJDP grantees and partners share these commitments. In June, the Office began holding a series of listening sessions with professionals in the field, gaining frank insights that will inform and help shape OJJDP’s work moving forward. We will also hold two virtual town halls with young people—including system-involved youth—to listen to what they have to say. Here’s a little of what we have heard so far, from colleagues in the field:

  • It’s important to include the youth voice when coming up with solutions to problems that affect young people.
  • We must think of kids as "our kids," not "their kids." We must treat system-involved youth the same way we’d want our own children to be treated.
  • It’s not "what’s wrong" with the child but “what happened” to the child. We need to focus on protective factors and services.

Hearing these priorities echoed by colleagues underscores their importance. Together, we are working to advance youth justice transformation and provide resources and opportunities that support youth and encourage them to thrive.

We owe it to our kids—all of them.

Date Published: August 5, 2022