When President Biden proclaimed October Youth Justice Action Month (YJAM), he referred to the approximately 36,000 young people who "remain confined in juvenile residential facilities, too often stuck in unsafe environments, facing adult charges or severe sentences, and living with untreated trauma that keeps them from moving forward." The President called on the nation to observe YJAM and recommit to transforming the juvenile justice system.
"It is time to rethink our system in order to better reach the young people who need us most with guidance and support," the President said, "to keep them from coming in contact with the criminal justice system in the first place."
YJAM began as Youth Justice Awareness Month, part of a bereaved mother’s plea for meaningful reform. Tracy McClard's teenage son, Jonathan, died by suicide in 2008 while locked in solitary confinement in an adult jail. The numbers of youth in U.S. adult jails and prisons has declined in recent years, but adult facilities still hold thousands of children. Local jails held 2,300 youth in 2020, down from 3,600 in 2015; federal and state prisons held 653 youth in 2019, down from 1,057 in 2015.
Children incarcerated with adults lack age-appropriate services, such as therapy and educational and vocational training. They are more likely than their peers in youth facilities to be held in solitary confinement, and to suffer physical and sexual abuse—leaving them with lasting trauma. Too many fail to develop decision-making skills to help them move forward in life. Youth charged as adults are 34 percent more likely to be rearrested than those who spent time in the juvenile justice system.
“Jonathan’s experience taught me that no child should be placed with adults no matter what, because when children are put in with adults they die—physically or mentally.”
—Tracy McClard, founder of Youth Justice Awareness Month, in Congressional testimony
YJAM aims to raise awareness about the conditions these children endure and spur action on their behalf. OJJDP embraces YJAM’s vision. Youth should never be incarcerated with adults. While some situations merit a young person’s placement in a secure facility designed for youth, those facilities should be reserved only for the most egregious of crimes. For the remaining system-involved youth—the overwhelming majority—community-based services are more effective, economical ways to hold young people accountable, prevent reoffending, and help them transition to adulthood.
OJJDP espouses this approach, and it has the support of more than three-quarters of Americans and many states. Community-based programs positively impact youth behavior, reduce reoffending, and—in the long run—are far less costly than incarceration, both financially and in damage done to our youth, families, and communities.
OJJDP is cohosting YJAM 2022 with the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network. Events opened on October 3 with a webinar hosted by OJJDP, Youth Justice Action Month: Creating Brighter Futures for Our Nation’s Youth, and will continue throughout the month. They include:
- On October 26, the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention will meet in person for the first time since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The council is an independent body within the federal government that coordinates federal programs related to youth justice, delinquency, and missing and exploited children.
- On October 27, OJJDP will host What Youth Justice Means to Youth: A Vision for the Future, an online event when youth leaders with lived experience in the juvenile justice system will present their recommendations for a “Youth-Centered Vision of Justice.” The platform emphasizes youth involvement in decisions affecting them, with a focus on young people from marginalized communities.
- OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan will make site visits to several programs with approaches that exemplify OJJDP’s three priorities: 1) Treat children as children. 2) Serve children at home, with their families, in their communities. 3) Open up opportunities for system-involved youth. OJJDP will also publish blog posts by the Administrator that address the three priorities.
“YJAM promotes OJJDP’s vision of a country where all children are free from crime and violence, and where youth contact with the justice system is rare, fair, and beneficial to them,” said Administrator Liz Ryan. “Our Office recognizes and celebrates every child’s potential for greatness, and we strive to create a country that listens to young people and responds to their needs.”
Visit OJJDP's Youth Justice Action Month: Creating Brighter Futures for Our Nation's Youth webpage for more information about YJAM, upcoming events, and links to additional resources.