Children’s Defense Fund’s Child Well-Being in America: A National Policy Forum Closing Plenary Remarks
November 3, 2023
Hello everyone. My name is Liz Ryan and I’m the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or OJJDP.
The Children’s Defense Fund has a remarkable history and your 50th anniversary is a significant milestone. Congratulations!
CDF and OJJDP are powerful partners. Like OJJDP, CDF puts kids first. We share a vision of a nation that prioritizes the needs of all children—a nation where each of them is safe and can thrive. Back in 1976, CDF published a groundbreaking report, Children in Adult Jails. In just its third year of operation, CDF was already demanding justice for children in grave need, alerting the nation to inhumane conditions the justice system tolerated.
On behalf of our country’s children, thank you for five decades of tireless work and advocacy.
I’m proud to say that I spent part of my professional life at CDF, beginning in 1998. I served as CDF’s liaison to the U.S. House of Representatives and as co-chair of the National Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Coalition. At the time, Congress was determined to gut the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, to make it more punitive. I was already committed to pursuing equity for youth in the justice system, but the CDF lens further illuminated their needs and cemented my professional path. To my core, I am an advocate for young people. Again, I thank you.
It is an honor to speak with you today. I’m thrilled to tell you about OJJDP, our priorities, and our commitment to improving racial equity and fairness in the juvenile justice system.
As you know, OJJDP is a component of the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.
We were established nearly 50 years ago through the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. That law charges OJJDP with providing national leadership, resources, and funding to states, territories, Tribes, and communities to protect children, prevent delinquency, and improve juvenile justice systems.
I know that everyone here agrees that all children deserve to be safe, cared for, and free from crime and violence. All young people deserve to be treated humanely. All of them deserve justice.
OJJDP embraces a vision of opportunity for young people. We prioritize community-based intervention and prevention services over confinement in detention centers and prisons—whenever possible.
Three priorities frame OJJDP’s work.
- First: Treat children as children.
- Second: Serve children at home, with their families, in their communities.
- And third: Open up opportunities for young people who are already involved in the juvenile justice system.
Central to each of these priorities is our unwavering commitment to racial equity and fairness, and a promise to partner with youth and families who are directly impacted by the system.
OJJDP’s first priority – treating children as children – begins with recognizing that kids and adults have very different needs. Children go through unique developmental stages, and scientific research shows that most brains are not fully developed until a young person reaches their mid-20s. Before then, youth are prone to impulsive, emotional, and risk-taking behaviors.
But research also tells us that young developing brains are capable of change and that most young people age out of delinquent behavior naturally, as they mature.
The U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged this. In numerous decisions, the Court has said that youth are legally less culpable than adults for their transgressions and more capable of responding positively to interventions aimed at changing delinquent behaviors—because their brains are still developing.
The Court stated this very clearly in 2012, in Miller v. Alabama. In that case, the Court abolished—for children—mandatory life sentences without the possibility of parole. Their opinion asserts that “children are constitutionally different from adults for purposes of sentencing.”
It’s our job to support youth needs fairly and equitably at every point in the juvenile justice system. OJJDP believes that we can do this while also holding young people accountable for their actions.
The opportunities and services that OJJDP supports must meet kids where they are, both cognitively and emotionally, as their needs evolve over time. By offering a continuum of care, we can guide them toward positive outcomes and change.
That’s why serving children at home, with their families and in their communities—whenever possible and consistent with public safety, is OJJDP’s second priority.
We know that most youth are better off when they receive developmentally appropriate, trauma-informed, and healing-centered programs within their communities. Most communities are better off, too. Research shows that community-based services promote community safety.
Children in out-of-home placements are far more likely to suffer depression, anxiety, and other mental health challenges. They are also far more likely to be traumatized by violence and victimization.
OJJDP continues to invest in community efforts to prevent and reduce trauma to youth while increasing the availability of mental health supports. Our approach emphasizes a continuum of care—at every point of the juvenile justice system—that matches prevention and intervention programs to the various levels of need and risk demonstrated by individual youth.
Through OJJDP’s “Building Local Continuums of Care to Support Youth Success” initiative, we will fund the development of community-based continuums that offer evidence-informed prevention and intervention services.
OJJDP’s third priority emphasizes the needs of youth who are already involved in the juvenile justice system—ensuring they receive the opportunities and targeted services they need to move forward with their lives. Our Second Chance Act programs offer young people life-altering opportunities for educational and vocational support, employment and housing assistance, mental and physical healthcare, family programming, and treatment for substance use.
These programs balance delinquency prevention and intervention with developmentally appropriate accountability.
Central to each of OJJDP’s priorities is our unwavering commitment to racial equity and fairness, and to partnering with youth and families who are directly impacted by the juvenile justice system.
We know that young people of color receive harsh and disparate treatment at every stage of the justice system.
Research has shown that, in most cases, Black youth and youth of color are more likely than white youth to be arrested, referred to court, and placed in an out-of-home facility—even when they are being adjudicated for the same offenses.
OJJDP strives to recognize and confront such marginalization and racism. And we are committed to learning from youth who encounter the juvenile justice system firsthand, to gain their insights on what works, what doesn’t, and why. If we’re to achieve justice for the young people in our systems, we must listen to what they tell us.
When young people make recommendations to OJJDP, when they take the time to share their experiences with us, we listen. Their input helps us develop strategies to engage and assist them, and their insights help us to shape OJJDP’s agenda around the tough issues they face.
OJJDP is challenging the field to implement robust programs in communities most impacted by incarceration—to keep youth with their families and in their communities. I’d like to share some examples of how we are doing that.
We are collaborating with the National Institute of Justice to study effective, community-based approaches that advance public safety while targeting and serving youth with the greatest needs, who face the greatest risk for system involvement.
We are continuing to fund Juvenile Justice System Reform and Reinvestment Initiative grants.
We are providing training and technical assistance to help states implement reforms. And we are making regular site visits and holding listening sessions to support community organizations that serve children at home, in their communities.
And we are continuing to support and grow high-quality mentoring programs—including programs that pair youth with adults who have lived experience of the justice system and who serve as credible messengers.
I’ll end these remarks with OJJDP’s vision statement, which guides our work and grounds us all in purpose. These words strengthen my resolve:
“OJJDP envisions a nation where all children are free from crime and violence. Youth contact with the system should be rare, fair, and beneficial.”
Rare, fair, and beneficial. For me, these three words sum up the intent of the juvenile justice system when it was founded 50 years ago. Children are innately different from adults. As we pursue justice for youth, our programs and services, laws and regulations must recognize, honor, and account for that difference.
My OJJDP colleagues and I are committed to this vision. We are tremendously grateful to know that CDF is, too.