Remarks by OJJDP Administrator Liz Ryan at the OJJDP Grantee Kickoff Meeting With the Southern University Law Center and Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice Reform Act Implementation Commission
September 19, 2023
Good morning! Thank you, Amy, for your kind introduction, your steadfast leadership at OJP, and your commitment to the Coordinating Council and our work to support our nation’s children.
As Amy said, I’m Liz Ryan, Administrator of the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention—or OJJDP. I’ll begin by recognizing and giving special thanks to everyone who played a role in making today’s meeting happen. We’ve taken the Council on the road! As Amy noted, this is perhaps the first time the Coordinating Council has met outside the Washington, DC, metro area. The efforts that made today’s activities possible involved a thousand moving pieces and dozens of people—from the support staff in our home offices, who adjusted schedules and made travel arrangements, to our hosts here in Harris County.
I’m excited that we will hear from two of our hosts in a few moments. First, Henry Gonzales—Executive Director of the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department—is going to tell us about an innovative program model, the Opportunity Center, and the extensive community collaborations that sustain it. We’ll have a chance to visit the Center this afternoon, after our meeting adjourns.
Another of our hosts, Dr. Sujeeta Menon, is Program Director for Civic Heart Community Services, an OJJDP grantee. Sujeeta is going to tell us about the Harris County Youth Justice Community Reinvestment Fund, which addresses disparities in the juvenile justice system by directing investments into community-based organizations. This program is a partnership between the Harris County Office of Safety and Justice and the Harris County Juvenile Probation Department.
Their aim is to keep young people out of the juvenile justice system—and promote community safety—by enhancing community-based prevention and intervention services. Civic Heart was awarded as the program’s Intermediary in May 2022 and has worked to ensure effective implementation of the Fund.
But before we turn to our presenters, please join me in welcoming our newest Coordinating Council practitioner members, Amiyah Davis, Michael Anthony Mendoza, and Liz Simons. Each was appointed by President Biden to serve on the Council, and each will bring a unique perspective and expertise to our proceedings.
Amiyah serves as a Project Coordinator for the Center for Juvenile Justice Reform at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, where she strives to elevate young voices while working to transform services for youth in communities across this nation.
An advocate and activist for youth in the juvenile justice system, Amiyah understands that effective system transformation requires us to consult and partner with the young people involved—and she works to ensure it happens.
Michael joins us from the Anti-Recidivism Coalition—ARC—which aims to end mass incarceration in California. ARC’s core initiatives include an emphasis on preventive care—and especially on keeping youth out of the state’s juvenile justice system.
For young people who are incarcerated, ARC offers a support network and comprehensive services to ease their reentry back to the community. As Director of Advocacy, Michael ensures that ARC’s legislative efforts center on the voices of people who are or were incarcerated—a priority ARC shares with OJJDP.
Liz chairs the board of the Heising-Simons Foundation, a family foundation headquartered in Los Altos, California, whose approach to juvenile justice embraces community investment. Liz and the Foundation espouse practices that recognize our common humanity, emphasizing healing and community accountability.
Liz also chairs the board of the Marshall Project, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization that approaches journalism as a tool that can make the U.S. criminal justice system more just, transparent, and humane.
We are so fortunate to have all three of our new appointees on the Council. Thank you, Amiyah, Michael, and Liz, for your commitment to equity and justice for our nation’s youth. I look forward to learning from you and the insights you bring to our work.
Each member of the Coordinating Council brings a unique lens to our table—a distinctive way of seeing and understanding the issues, informed by their personal expertise and professional and life experiences. Look around—in this room we have representatives from numerous federal agencies, and youth justice practitioners from communities across the United States.
The Council relies on the input and contributions of each one of these agencies and practitioner partners to function effectively as a whole. We are a team, made stronger by our diverse opinions and the depth of our varied expertise, but—ultimately—we share the same common goals: ensuring justice and equity for youth, providing opportunities for our young people to thrive, and promoting security in and for our communities.
As we move forward, I hope the Council’s teamwork will be a model for the kind of multidisciplinary collaborations and partnerships necessary—in every community—to serve youth effectively. I am certain that the Council will learn from the collaborations we hear about and witness today, here in Harris County. As we all know, collaborating is exciting—but it’s also really hard. That’s one of the reasons the successful partnerships here in Harris County are so exceptional.
I’m thrilled to be here in Houston!—and to have a chance to meet in-person with Harris County practitioners who are so devoted to youth justice: to protecting young people and creating opportunities here for their growth and development.
For many years, the juvenile justice system focused primarily on harm reduction. But increasingly, we also 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 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.
The juvenile justice system must do a better job of helping youth to access supports like these—but OJJDP can’t do this work alone. 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 DC, so that we can learn more about the best ways to integrate communities into this essential work.
I look forward to further conversations about these partnerships later today—and to learning how federal agencies can encourage and support communities across the nation as they engage in similar collaborative efforts.
I visited the Opportunity Center in August of last year, when I was in Harris County for their violence prevention convening. The Center is housed in what once served as the Burnett-Bayland Juvenile Rehabilitation Center—a secure detention facility for youth. Today, a myriad of community partnerships have transformed that building into a thriving hub of multi-disciplinary support services: GED and ESL classes. Healthcare. Employment opportunities and training programs. Counseling and case management. Clothing. Transitional foster care services. Financial literacy. Housing assistance. Treatment for substance use disorders. The list goes on.
And there’s laughter inside those walls! Alongside the long list of services to help youth prepare for success in life, the Opportunity Center offers programs for enrichment and fun.
Both the Opportunity Center and the Harris County Reinvestment Fund exemplify how young people and communities benefit when agencies come together and focus on community-based services. As you can tell, I’m very excited about these partnerships—I could talk about them for hours. I’ll stop here, though, because Henry Gonzales and Sujeeta Menon are going to share those stories in a few moments.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you this morning. We’ll begin today’s presentations in a few minutes. But first, let’s go around the room and introduce ourselves. Please state your name and the organization or agency you represent, your title, and a little bit about your work on behalf of young people.