By Liz Ryan, OJJDP Administrator
October is Youth Justice Action Month, a national observance underscoring the need for equity in the juvenile justice system and for centering directly impacted youth and their families to advance youth justice. OJJDP is committed to transforming the juvenile justice system to promote the welfare of all youth. Three priorities guide our work: 1) Treat children as children. 2) Serve children at home, with their families and in their communities. 3) Open up opportunities for system-involved youth. My blog posts during Youth Justice Action Month will focus on these priorities and how OJJDP is working to achieve them. The following post focuses on the third priority, Opening up opportunities for system-involved youth.
Justice system-involved youth deserve the same access to opportunities and services as their non-justice system-involved peers. Time in the system carries a stigma that may follow youth even after release, impeding efforts to find a safe place to live, obtain financial aid for college, get a job, or serve in the military. We can and must offer youth who encounter the juvenile justice system the guidance and opportunities they need to move forward in life: to find confidence, achieve success, and grow into independent, contributing citizens.
I value honest, firsthand insights, like the reentry experiences shared by justice system-involved young people at a recent webinar held by the Performance-based Standards Learning Institute, an OJJDP grantee. A panel of young adults spoke candidly about their lived experiences in residential facilities and their transition back to their home communities. One young woman, Amiyah Davis, recalled entering the juvenile justice system at age 10. After years of confinement, she had “no independent living skills” at her release, she said.
“I didn’t know how to wash laundry, let alone cook a meal,” Ms. Davis recalled. She did not know how to apply for public assistance and hadn’t learned about the range of services she could receive. The schooling Ms. Davis received while confined did not qualify her for a high school diploma. Connecting with someone like herself—a young person who had experienced “the system” but already maneuvered the hurdles she faced—would have made all the difference, she said.
On any given day, approximately 36,500 youth in the U.S. are in residential placement. Most eventually return to their communities, and they—like Amiyah Davis—need support to make that transition successfully. OJJDP already has Second Chance Act programs to help strengthen families and provide youth reentering their communities with educational and vocational opportunities, employment and housing assistance, mental and physical healthcare, family programming, and substance use treatment—but I vow to do more. One of my priorities as OJJDP Administrator involves expanding educational and employment opportunities for youth impacted by the juvenile justice system.
At OJJDP, we know that justice system-involved youth are uniquely qualified to identify their needs as they grow and navigate the transition to adulthood. That’s why I’m committed to meeting face-to-face with young people, including those who have encountered the juvenile justice system. I’ve held virtual town halls with youth in 2022 and I’ll continue to meet with justice system-involved youth. I want to hear about their needs, their experiences, and the opportunity gaps they’ve encountered. And I want to hear it directly from them.
Everyone, whether young or old, makes mistakes. While justice system-involved youth must be held accountable for their wrongdoings, they must also have access to assistance and opportunities that will help them move beyond past errors. All young people deserve a chance for fulfilling, productive lives. It’s our job to ensure they get it.