U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government, Department of Justice.

Remarks for OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan - Youth Justice Symposium Minneapolis, MN


Remarks for OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan - Youth Justice Symposium Minneapolis, MN

February 1, 2024

Good afternoon. I’m Liz Ryan, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or OJJDP.

Thank you to Mary Moriarty, the Hennepin County Attorney, for organizing the Youth Justice Symposium and for inviting me to speak with you today. I’m very excited to be here.

Everyone at OJJDP is grateful to Hennepin County for your work with Headway Youth Diversion Services and so many community-based organizations, offering young people a path to treatment and accountability that diverts them out of the juvenile justice system. We commend your commitment to research that has demonstrated success. Please keep doing what you’re doing. You are a valued partner!

Today, I want talk to you about OJJDP’s three priorities and our support for a continuum of care approach to serving the nation’s young people. 

I’d also like to offer a few thoughts on youth violence and victimization, and some trends that have come to light. Finally, I’d like to highlight a few of OJJDP's recent accomplishments as we strive for greater justice for all young people.

Today’s forum takes place on the first day of Black History Month, when this country focuses on the profound accomplishments of Black Americans. At this time of year, our reflections—and our hopes for the future—turn naturally to the vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King believed in justice and equality for all, and he strongly believed that youth had the power to create a more just world. To advance his vision, he listened to young people, embraced them as partners, and spoke about what he learned from them.  

We at OJJDP also value youth perspective. We seek to create a more equitable and just system by listening to and working with youth and families impacted by the juvenile justice system. 

Dr. King once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I find strength and inspiration in those words. I believe they are an apt description of our work as youth justice professionals. We all strive to bring greater fairness and equity to the lives of young people.

I'd like to tell you a little about myself and about OJJDP. In May, I will celebrate my second anniversary as Administrator, but my commitment to justice for youth and families goes back decades. I began working in legislative and justice-related issues more than 30 years ago, and I've spent the last 20-plus years advocating to reform the juvenile justice system. 

OJJDP is a federal agency within the U.S. Department of Justice. We were established in 1974, 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. Our work helps to create safer communities and empower youth to lead productive lives.

As Administrator, I direct OJJDP's grant programs, training and technical assistance initiatives, research, and policy activities. In other words, I am responsible for ensuring that OJJDP fulfills our charge—that we serve and protect this nation's youth.

OJJDP envisions a nation where all children are free from crime and violence and if they come into contact with the justice system, it should be rare, fair, and beneficial.

Three priorities guide our work:

  • First: Treat children as children.
  • Second: Serve youth at home, with their families, and in their communities; and
  • Third: Open up opportunities for young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.

Two overarching principles run through these priorities: 

  • A commitment to racial equity and fairness, and 
  • A promise to partner with youth and families who are directly impacted by the juvenile justice system. 

OJJDP is committed to recognizing and confronting the marginalization and racism that too many young people of color encounter every day in the juvenile justice system. We are also committed to listening to and learning from young people who encounter the juvenile justice system to better understand—from them—what works, what doesn’t, and why. 

In 2023, OJJDP made substantial progress toward advancing the three priorities I just listed. We developed and implemented a plan of action, based on feedback we heard at listening sessions and town halls held in 2022. 

Those sessions were attended by youth, families, practitioners, policymakers, and other stakeholders, and their feedback continues to guide OJJDP's funding, programmatic, and policy decisions to help transform the youth justice system.

In 2023, we brought fresh approaches to our first priority—treating children as children. For example, we worked collaboratively with other Justice Department agencies to develop the 2023 National Strategy for Child Exploitation Prevention and Interdiction. We launched a new partnership with the National Sheriffs' Association to keep young people out of adult jails. And we are working with our Victims of Child Abuse Act partners to develop an integrated strategic training and technical assistance plan.

We remained faithful to OJJDP's second priority, keeping kids at home and in their communities and providing them with supportive services and interventions. For example, we are supporting the National Institute of Criminal Justice Reform’s Community of Practice, a collaborative approach to developing community-based alternatives to youth incarceration.   

And we are opening up more opportunities for young people who come into contact with the youth justice system—our third priority.

OJJDP awarded nearly $16 million dollars through our Second Chance Act Youth Reentry Program, to address the challenges young people face when they leave confinement and return to their communities. We are partnering with AmeriCorps to ensure that justice-involved youth learn about the AmeriCorps experience and offering them opportunities to become members.

We also relaunched the Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The Council coordinates federal programs and activities for youth, to encourage more efficient, seamless delivery of resources to young people along the continuum of care. 

In 2023, OJJDP worked hard to keep our promise to engage youth and families. We expanded the work of our Youth and Family Partnerships Work Group, for example, and we created the Youth Reentry Technical Assistance Fellowship Program for individuals with lived experience in the juvenile justice system.  

We also added a new pilot program in which youth with lived experience serve as paid peer reviewers for our grant programs. And we added language to every solicitation asking prospective grantees to tell us—in their grant proposals—how they are partnering with youth and families.

Finally, over the last year OJJDP intensified our focus on racial equity and fairness. We added the National Racial and Ethnic Disparities Databook to OJJDP's website, for example.

It presents a national picture of racial and ethnic disparities in the juvenile justice system, describes how these disparities are measured, and identifies the decision points in the system where the greatest disparities exist. 

We also assisted with Justice Department guidance regarding assessment of court-imposed fines and fees on adults and youth. The debt caused by court-imposed fines and fees can sabotage a family's efforts to achieve autonomy and provide for their children—adding trauma to families that are already suffering. 

The Justice Department's groundbreaking guidance stresses that jurisdictions should presume that children and youth are indigent and unable to pay fines and fees. It reflects the Department's commitment to addressing economic hardship within the legal system, and I’m proud of OJJDP's involvement in its development.

This brings me back to Dr. King and his acknowledgement of the deep connection between economic hardship and racial inequality. Dr. King taught us that systemic change is crucial to fostering equity and fairness.

I'd also like to tell you more about our continuum of care approach and how we are supporting youth at every point in the juvenile justice system. 

In 2023, we created our Continuum of Care model, which spans prevention, intervention, and reentry strategies. These strategies–implemented in addition to enforcement strategies–address the issue of youth crime holistically. We issued a solicitation in 2023 for a new effort, the Building Local Continuums of Care to Support Youth Success initiative, to provide funding to state and local jurisdictions with high rates of youth incarceration. 

We hope to fund 20 communities under this initiative, and we will create a training and technical assistance center to support to those grantees and the broader field, too. We want to ensure that communities can find the supports and services available for their young people, identify gaps, and apply resources to build their capacity. 

As some of you may already know, OJJDP is tasked with preventing and reducing delinquent behavior by youth. For that small percentage of young people who engage in serious, violent crime, we focus our resources on interventions and treatments that help reduce their likelihood of reoffending. 

We are also committed to stemming the flow of youth into the adult criminal justice system. Our goal is to prevent youth from becoming involved in the justice system in the first place. 

OJJDP invests heavily in prevention efforts, and particularly in mentoring services for young people. Mentoring is at the core of our programming—because a relationship with a trusted mentor can change a young person's life for the better. 

Knowing someone cares about you—that you matter to them—can make all the difference. A mentor can boost a young person's self-esteem and help strengthen their family and peer relationships. 

Research links mentoring with increases in school attendance and performance, and decreases in problematic behaviors, like delinquency and substance use. 

OJJDP funding supports an array of mentoring initiatives—both one-to-one and group programs in a wide range of settings: schools, workplaces, youth detention facilities, virtual settings, and more. 

We’ve introduced a new funding category in fiscal year 2023—Mentoring Programs for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System—to expand the number of caring people in the lives of system-involved young people: people who will celebrate their victories, help them tackle problems, and talk about life and their hopes for future. 

OJJDP is working to prevent and intervene in school and community violence. Our Enhancing School Capacity To Address Youth Violence initiative is supporting a collaborative approach between schools and community-based organizations to address violence by youth. We are also focused on diversion programs, and alternatives to incarceration and detention. 

We also support youth working to successfully reenter the community after incarceration. OJJDP’s Second Chance Act funding supports reentry services for them—our goal is to help ensure that young people in confinement have assistance in developing a reentry plan as soon as they are incarcerated. That plan should include a range of supports—from employment and education to mental health services—to help ensure that young person has a successful transition back to their community. 

In addition, our funding supports the professionals who work with youth in the juvenile justice system—at every point in the system. We support trainings for law enforcement professionals; prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges; professionals working in probation and parole services, and those working in detention and correction facilities.

Through our Formula Grants program, we provide funding to states and territories for a variety of youth programs, including services for youth at risk of reoffending.

OJJDP continues to invest in research and partner with our sister agency, the National Institute of Justice, to better understand what works to prevent and reduce serious offending among young people.

All of these services and activities are part of OJJDP's continuum of care approach to serving youth. 

This year, we are assessing our grant programming and strategies across the continuum of care—prevention, intervention, reentry—to identify any gaps in the services we support. 

We are committed to this work and will look to partners like you to help advance this approach. 

Before I close, I’d like to discuss the current state of youth crime and victimization in this country. 

We know that some jurisdictions are experiencing increases in violent crime—and that is very concerning. It is true that data does show an increase in specific types of crimes committed by youth. However, these increases reflect the actions of a very small number of high-risk youth who need our immediate attention. 

Young people are more often victims of crime than they are perpetrators. And a recent study[1] found that youth who were involved in the juvenile justice system were 23 times more likely than the general population to die from gun violence. 

Understanding the nature of delinquency by youth is paramount to developing effective policy and successfully reforming the juvenile justice system. To answer the needs of young people and the community, we must examine both the prevalence and characteristics of youth behavior, and the patterns of subsequent misconduct. 

OJJDP published research last summer examining the histories of more than 160,000 youth who were referred to juvenile court. Here are some important findings:

  • Just over 60 percent of those young people did not return to juvenile court after their first referral. 
  • A small percentage—7 percent—were initially referred to juvenile court for a violent crime. 
  • Just 0.1 percent [one-tenth of 1 percent] were found to be chronically violent—that is, with four or more referrals for violent offenses. 

There is no substitute for high-quality data that offer an objective picture of youth victimization and crime. As you return to your communities and share what you've learned at this symposium, I encourage you to take a closer look at the local data on crime in your communities and consider the underlying reasons for it. 

Another point to highlight on this issue is that kids are kids. They often make rash decisions and act on impulse which can lead them down the wrong path, as we've heard.  But they can change.

"Kids are kids. Kids make rash decisions and they act on impulse, which can lead them down the wrong path, But kids can change. . . . To be clear: we're not excusing delinquent behavior, we're just explaining it and sharing the data on what we know about kids. We know that there's a path towards rehabilitation and growth."

Longitudinal research supported by OJJDP and the National Institute of Justice shows that most young people who engage in delinquent behavior age out of it. That is, youth who commit offenses—even serious offenses—are not automatically destined for the adult criminal justice system. 

The vast majority greatly reduce their offending over time, regardless of the intervention they receive—but the study found that young people who received community-based supervision and aftercare services were more likely to attend school, go to work, and avoid further transgressions. 

To be clear, we are not excusing delinquent behavior, we're just explaining it and sharing the data on what we know about kids. We know that there’s a path towards rehabilitation and growth. 

In closing, I encourage you to visit our website at OJJDP.ojp.gov to learn more about what we do. While you are there, please subscribe to our newsletter, OJJDP News @ a Glance, and sign up to receive our JUVJUST emails, which provides up-to-date information on programs, resources, and grant announcements. 

You should also visit our new webpage commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. We're celebrating the anniversary with a year-long observance called “Looking Back, Moving Forward.” We are organizing several events, culminating with OJJDP's National Conference on Youth Justice in November. 

2024 is a milestone year for OJJDP! We invite you to celebrate with us! 

Thank you. 

[1]Nonfatal Firearm Injury and Firearm Mortality in High-risk Youths and Young Adults 25 Years After Detention


Date Created: February 29, 2024