Welcome Remarks by OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan for the Youth Justice Action Month Kickoff Webinar
October 3, 2023
Good afternoon. Thank you for joining us for the Youth Justice Action Month—YJAM—kickoff webinar. I am Liz Ryan, the Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, or OJJDP.
Last week, President Biden again proclaimed October as Youth Justice Action Month, recommitting the Administration’s support to “expanding opportunities for all of our Nation’s children and building a justice system that allows our youth to thrive.”
I am very excited to speak with you today—to share OJJDP’s plans for YJAM, and to tell you about some of our recent activities on behalf of our nation’s young people. First, I’d like to share a little bit of YJAM’s history.
YJAM was inspired by tragedy. In 2008, a 17-year-old boy, Jonathan McClard, died by suicide while being held in solitary confinement in an adult jail. Jonathan had endured repeated threats and beatings by some of the adults in the jail. His mother, Tracy McClard, channeled her grief into action. She became an advocate for juvenile justice reform and fought to end the incarceration of youth in the adult criminal justice system—a goal OJJDP shares.
Ms. McClard started the movement we now call YJAM—an annual observation to raise awareness about young people impacted by the juvenile justice system and inspire action on their behalf. Action is the key word here—because system reform requires action. Action changes lives. It can save lives.
Young people impacted by the justice system need our support and advocacy just as much today as they did 15 years ago. OJJDP’s celebration of YJAM 2023 continues what Ms. McClard began, with a month’s worth of activities designed to educate and galvanize communities, advocates, and policymakers.
OJJDP is cohosting YJAM 2023 with our partners, the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network—CJJ and NJJN. You’ll be hearing from them in just a few moments. OJJDP is immensely proud to be working with CJJ and NJJN again this year. Our goals and priorities closely align.
OJJDP envisions a nation where all children are free from crime and violence, and where youth contact with the justice system is rare, fair, and beneficial. We embrace a vision of opportunity for young people that emphasizes community-based services. Three priorities guide our work.
- First: Treating children as children.
- Second: Serving youth at home, with their families and in their communities; and
- Third: Opening up opportunities for young people who come into contact with the juvenile justice system.
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 strive to recognize and confront the marginalization and racism that too many young people encounter every day. And we are committed to listening to and learning from youth who encounter the juvenile justice system firsthand, to gain their insights on what works, what doesn’t, and why.
OJJDP is committed to our nation’s youth—to ensuring their welfare and providing opportunities and tools that expand their chances for success. Simply put, young people are at the heart of everything OJJDP does—and that compels us to listen to their insights. We want to work with youth, not just for them.
This year’s YJAM theme is “Justice Is….”
It’s an incomplete sentence—a fill-in-the-blank—and that’s by design. Justice isn’t a one-size-fits-all concept. Its meaning varies depending on who you are, where you live, how you live—and dozens of other factors. What does justice mean to you?
By leaving the definition open, we are inviting system-involved youth, their families, and allies to participate in our mission—to collaborate on new approaches to youth justice and system reform, new ways to support youth, and new avenues for opportunity.
OJJDP believes we must elevate the voices of those who are most impacted by the systems we seek to change. I assure you—we listen to those voices. There will be many opportunities to participate in YJAM events throughout October, including policy roundtables hosted by communities across the country. Youth—their voices and insights—will be at the center of each.
Last month, OJJDP celebrated the 49th anniversary of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act—landmark legislation that established our Office and charged us with protecting children and improving the nation’s juvenile justice system. As we celebrated, we also reflected on how far the youth justice field has come since 1974.
Over the years, OJJDP funding has supported national efforts to prevent child abuse, locate missing and exploited children, and combat Internet crimes against children.
We have worked to create effective interventions for youth who have committed delinquent acts, and provide mentors to children and youth before they ever become involved in the justice system.
I’d like to highlight some of OJJDP’s recent work on behalf of our nation’s youth.
In 2022, OJJDP hosted 16 listening sessions and town halls with stakeholders from across the country, including youth and families. In 2023, we collaborated with federal partners and national organizations to host additional listening sessions focusing especially on Tribal youth and young people in rural communities.
At these meetings, we repeatedly heard about the needs of young people who are transitioning back home after residential placement and the barriers they face—like being burdened with court-imposed fines and fees they don’t have the means to pay. Youth and families called for a robust reentry system that addresses basic needs, like housing, food, and transportation. They said that adult and peer mentors can help system-involved young people connect with wraparound services, treatment programs, and employment opportunities.
This feedback echoes what OJJDP hears every day from youth justice professionals. It mirrors what we know about successful programs to prevent violence and delinquent behavior by youth. Young people know what they need! They know what has worked for them and what has not.
OJJDP listened. We are still listening. And we are taking steps to ensure we integrate youth voices into everything we do. I’ll give you a few examples.
OJJDP formed a youth and family working group in 2022, to help us establish best practices, assess programs, and ensure that we partner effectively with young people and families who are directly impacted by the juvenile justice system.
A few months ago, our Opioid Affected Youth Initiative created a youth advisory board—young people acting as advocates for youth who are impacted by opioids and substance use disorders. The board raises up to OJJDP issues their peers face and helps us develop strategies to engage and assist them.
OJJDP is exploring how to integrate youth in our grant awards process. We’ve invited young people with lived experience in the juvenile justice system to serve as peer reviewers, who are paid to evaluate competitive grant applications. Their input will support OJJDP efforts to make fair, equitable, and objective funding decisions.
OJJDP also expects our grantees to listen and respond to the young people they serve. This year, for the first time, every OJJDP solicitation includes language urging prospective grantees to tell us—in their funding applications—how they are partnering with youth and families. We want to know that the programs we fund are modeling our priorities.
We are here today to celebrate the first of our YJAM events, but I assure you that OJJDP’s commitment to action on behalf of youth has always extended far beyond the month of October.
As OJJDP looks forward to its 50th anniversary next year, we are busy planning numerous activities and celebrations—including a national convening on youth justice. It’s going to be a momentous gathering of young people and their families, researchers, practitioners, policymakers, and advocates from across the country. Be sure to follow OJJDP on social media; we’ll be sharing more details soon.
For many years, the juvenile justice system focused primarily on harm reduction. Now we understand the importance of youth well-being—that young people need and deserve supports and services that will help them grow into their best selves.
That means ensuring that our youth maintain relationships with their families and the communities that support them. It means ensuring access to opportunities for personal growth, like education and vocational training. It also means connections—to mentors, classes in life skills, chances for enrichment and recreation, affordable housing, and mental health services that promote healing.
None of us can do this alone. Partnerships—with and between child-serving agencies, nonprofits, and community-based organizations—are absolutely critical.
OJJDP is tremendously grateful to our partners—CJJ, NJJN, and so many others—for your tireless devotion to reform and equity, and for your ongoing collaborations with us.
Today, as we kick off YJAM 2023, I encourage each of us to commit to strengthening existing partnerships—and to pursuing new ones.
We are stronger together. We make each other stronger.
I’m going to pass the microphone now so we can hear from CJJ and NJJN—their work to protect and support young people, and the activities and resources they’ve developed for YJAM. Thank you, again, for joining us today for this kickoff webinar. I look forward to seeing and learning from you throughout October, and in the months to come.
Now, we’ll hear from our partners from the Coalition for Juvenile Justice and the National Juvenile Justice Network.
Webinar's Closing Remarks:
As we close, I’d like to thank Tracey, Alani and Myla for participating in today’s webinar. And thank all of you for joining us for one of many activities we have planned for Youth Justice Action Month. To learn more about upcoming YJAM activities, visit our website at OJJDP.OJP.GOV.