Remarks by OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan at the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission Meeting
November 16, 2022
Good morning. I am Liz Ryan, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, better known as OJJDP.
I’d like to thank Representative Duplessis, Chairman of the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission, for inviting me to speak here today, and thanks to all the Commission for your focus on our young people.
I’d also like to acknowledge the youth and families here today as well as my fellow panelists, Allison Zimmer, Staff Attorney and Skadden Fellow for the Louisiana Center for Children’s Rights and Assistant Secretary Curtis Nelson from the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice.
I’m here with members of our senior leadership at OJJDP – Janet Chiancone, Deputy Administrator, and TeNeane Bradford, Associate Administrator of our State and Tribal Relations and Assistance Division.
For those of you who may not be familiar with our work, OJJDP is a federal agency created through the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act to help ensure youth safety and well-being.
Since its inception nearly 50 years ago, OJJDP has provided national leadership, coordination, and resources to prevent and respond to delinquency and youth victimization.
Our support helps states, territories, and Tribes develop equitable juvenile justice systems that create safer communities and empower young people to lead productive lives.
I am here today to talk about how the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention can provide assistance to Louisiana’s youth justice system.
As the only federal agency focused on youth who are involved with—or are at risk of becoming involved with—the juvenile justice system, OJJDP is committed to enhancing the welfare of America’s young people and broadening their opportunities for a better future.
We work to achieve these goals by providing support to the juvenile justice field to treat children as children, serve young people at home with their families and in their communities, and open up opportunities for system-involved youth.
We are also committed to confronting racial inequity and elevating the voices of youth and families impacted by the juvenile justice system.
I truly believe that everyone here shares a common objective—to advance what is best for our youth, families, and communities.
To achieve that worthwhile goal, together we can work to address youth needs and help every child achieve their fullest potential.
The way forward for Louisiana—indeed, for all states—is to rely on research and data, which tell us very plainly what works and what does not work in juvenile justice.
I’d like to briefly share OJJDP’s priorities.
First, we focus on treating children as children.
This priority is grounded in a fundamental scientific understanding that children are distinctly different from adults.
Research tells us that the regions of the brain governing impulse control and risk avoidance are not fully formed until a person is in their mid-20s. Consequently, adolescents are prone to impulsive, emotional, and risk-taking behavior.
However, this is a transitory phase in human development. Most youth will, without intervention, age out of delinquent behavior as they mature.
The Supreme Court has repeatedly acknowledged—in cases like Roper v. Simmons, Graham v. Florida, and Miller v. Alabama—that young people’s developing brains make them less culpable than adults for their transgressions and more capable of rehabilitation. This understanding undergirds the basis for the juvenile justice system.
Let me be clear on this point: Children do not belong in adult courts and certainly not in adult jails and adult prisons. Adult prisons and an adult corrections approach harms children and undermines the goals of juvenile justice reforms.
Our second priority is serving kids at home, with their families and in their communities.
Our third priority is to open up opportunities for youth involved in the juvenile justice system.
At OJJDP, we are also committed to confronting racial inequity and elevating the voices of youth and families impacted by the juvenile justice system.
Funneling youth into the adult system also exacerbates racial disparities. Studies show that youth of color are more likely than white youth to be arrested and enter the juvenile justice system, and they are more likely to be prosecuted in adult criminal court and placed in adult jails and prisons even when charged with similar offenses.
Here are a few reasons why youth must not be confined in adult prisons.
- First, as noted in the Prison Rape Elimination Act, or PREA, youth are 5 times more likely to be sexually assaulted in adult facilities than in juvenile facilities—often within the first 48 hours of incarceration. The National Prison Rape Elimination Commission’s 2009 report underscored a need to act, stating that “More than any other group of incarcerated persons, youth incarcerated with adults are probably at the highest risk of sexual abuse.”
- The statistics grow more disheartening. In comparison to their peers in juvenile facilities, youth held in adult facilities are 36 times more likely to die by suicide.
- Second, young people in adult facilities are often subjected to physical violence, either as victims or as witnesses. These children are literally fighting for their lives. Living in a prolonged state of fight or flight often leads to lifelong trauma and health complications.
- Third, in a misguided effort to keep young people, some adult prisons hold youth in extended periods of isolation. Others use solitary confinement to counter staff shortages or to fulfill PREA’s “sight and sound” separation requirement. The use of solitary confinement, for any reason, can lead to great psychological, physical, and developmental harm. It must be discontinued.
- Fourth, adult prisons simply are not equipped to provide the programming necessary for a child’s healthy development. They deny children access to age-appropriate care, therapy, and the educational and vocational training necessary to prepare them to return to their communities.
- Youth also need community and family connections to thrive—without these supports, too many youth never develop the decision-making skills they need to move forward in life.
- Harsher punishment for justice-involved youth may, in fact, endanger public safety.
It is for these reasons—and more—that OJJDP immediately reached out to the Louisiana Office of Juvenile Justice and to the Office of the Governor in July, when we learned that youth under the custody of the juvenile justice agency were soon to be transferred from juvenile facilities to the Louisiana State Penitentiary where operational failings have been extensively documented over the years and continue today.
In reaching out to OJJ and the Office of the Governor, we expressed grave concern over the plan to house children in a maximum-security adult prison. We offered the Office of Juvenile Justice direct support to help identify more appropriate placement options. Moving youth to this maximum-security prison complex constitutes a major reversal for juvenile justice.
We stand by our offer to assist Louisiana including the Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission in reforming your juvenile justice system and improve outcomes for Louisiana’s youth and families.
If anyone has questions about the assistance my Office is offering, our staff and I will be glad to go over the options with you in detail after the meeting.
In terms of federal resources, Louisiana has approximately $4 million in active OJJDP federal grant funding, which can be blended and braided together to make impactful change for the state’s justice-involved youth.
In fiscal year 2021, Louisiana’s OJJ received a competitive award from OJJDP under the Enhancing Juvenile Justice: Reform and Reinvestment program. The sole purpose of this grant is to work on improving and reforming the system. This funding provides Louisiana with an opportunity to find real, long-term solutions to its juvenile justice crisis.
The state also has 3 active Title II Formula Grant awards and received OJJDP funding under our Reducing Risk for Girls in the Juvenile Justice System.
We also offer no-cost training and technical assistance to our grant recipients, and we will ensure the Commission and its partners have an OJJDP point of contact available to work directly with them. Technical assistance can cover a lot of areas, from staff training and long-term planning to assessing youth needs and identifying community-based placement options.
I’d like to share several recommendations for your consideration:
First, we recommend that children be removed immediately from Angola. Children do not belong in adult prisons.
Second, we recommend an assessment of OJJ’s incarcerated youth population to identify which youth could be released to community level services and monitoring.
Third, Louisiana’s juvenile court judges are essential to the success of these reforms. Judicial cooperation is necessary to successfully transfer youth to community and alternative placements.
Fourth, we recommend that OJJ and the Louisiana Commission on Law Enforcement partner with effective community-based organizations like the Youth Advocate Program (YAP) to transition appropriate youth back into the community.
YAP uses an individualized case planning and management approach when working with youth whose needs are complex, to keep them in their homes and communities.
Fifth, we recommend that OJJ implement programs that help youth with fewer than 6 months left on their custodial sentence transition or “step down” from restrictive housing to less-restrictive environments. Louisiana could pilot this in jurisdictions with the large numbers of youth in custody, using existing wraparound services.
Sixth, we recommend that OJJ implement specialized training and technical assistance for OJJ leadership and facility managers, to address facility management and the conditions of youth confinement.
Finally, we encourage this Commission to oversee the successful implementation of these reforms over the long term. A sustained commitment is critical to make the changes that are needed for youth and their families. This means fully resourcing and staffing this commission.
At OJJDP, we are here to support you every step of the way as you work together to address challenges confronting Louisiana’s juvenile justice system.