The Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention explored innovative approaches to youth justice—including ways federal agencies can support local collaborations to increase the availability of community-based support services for vulnerable youth—during its September 19, 2023, meeting in Houston, TX. The meeting marked the first time the council convened outside the greater Washington, D.C., area.
“The power of partnership is on full display here,” Office of Justice Programs Assistant Attorney General Amy L. Solomon said at the outset of the meeting. “Through this council’s willingness to engage in collective problem solving, tapping the combined wealth of its expertise, I know that, working together, we will be able to build on the impressive momentum the juvenile justice field has generated in recent years.”
Remarks by OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan emphasized the need to help young people maintain family and community relationships and find opportunities for personal growth through mentoring and other connections. “The juvenile justice system must do a better job of helping youth to access supports like these,” she said. “That’s why partnerships with each of the agencies represented here are so critically important. And it’s why we are so pleased to bring the council outside of D.C., so that we can learn more about the best ways to partner with communities in this essential work.”
Henry Gonzales, Executive Director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department, discussed the county’s efforts to transform its juvenile justice system. The system placed too much emphasis on punishing low-level offenses and assigned white youth to diversion programs at much higher rates than Black youth, he said. To address those issues, and to ease access to community-based services that could not be provided by the county, the department converted an aging youth detention facility into the Opportunity Center, a hub for support services such as vocational training, case management, treatment for substance use, financial coaching, and housing and food assistance.
The Opportunity Center is the product of a collaboration between the county and about 30 community-based organizations. It strives to meet kids “where they are,” Vanessa Ramirez, Director of Strategic Partnerships for the probation department, told the council. Youth can attend a charter school that offers daytime GED classes, take classes at a community college, visit a healthcare clinic, and receive behavioral health counseling. Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Houston offers leadership programming during the school day; after school hours, youth can serve as paid coaches to deliver programming to the surrounding community. Parents can take 6-week GED and ESL evening classes led by the county.
A separate reform, the Youth Justice Community Reinvestment Fund was spearheaded by the county’s Office of Justice and Safety, the juvenile probation department, and other stakeholders; it is reinvesting surplus funds into neighborhoods most impacted by juvenile justice referrals. The county’s general fund and the juvenile probation department each contributed $2 million to the reinvestment fund, which is being administered by a social services provider, Civic Heart Community Services.
Civic Heart performed a needs gap analysis to identify hot spots with high numbers of misdemeanor and felony referrals, and a dearth of services, Dr. Sujeeta E. Menon, the organization’s Youth Justice Program Director, told the council. Civic Heart issued solicitations targeting neighborhoods with missing services and selected seven small, grassroots organizations to deliver a range of services to youth in their communities, including mentoring, case management, life skills, leadership development, education, and vocational training. OJJDP funding has helped Civic Heart build its capacity to support the reinvestment fund’s grantees.
Administrator Ryan moderated a discussion among a panel of Harris County representatives and stakeholders on lessons learned since the launch of the Opportunity Center and the reinvestment fund. Vidhya Ananthakrishnan, Director of Youth Justice Initiatives for Columbia Justice Lab, and Danielle Lipow, Senior Associate at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, praised the county’s effort to invest in community partners, given the importance for juvenile justice systems to prioritize young people’s wellbeing.
Before the meeting adjourned, the council heard reports from its programs and practice, and policy subcommittees.
Following the meeting, council members toured the Opportunity Center campus and saw many of the facility‘s vocational training partners, including programs in construction, electrical contracting, digital fabrication, electronic systems installation, and music production. Members visited Houston Threads, a store where youth and their families can obtain no-cost emergency clothing and outfits for school, court, or work. They also saw “La Bodega,” a store for students that provides youth employees experience in operating a small business, and a tiny home built by Opportunity Center students that may be used to house homeless youth.
|The Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act of 1974, as amended, established the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention as an independent body to coordinate federal programs related to delinquency prevention and missing and exploited children. The council comprises 11 ex officio members, 2 affiliate members, and up to 10 nonfederal practitioner members who are named by the President and Congress. The Attorney General serves as Chair of the Council and the OJJDP Administrator serves as Vice Chair. The council holds public meetings up to four times each year.|