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OJJDP's Ryan Wants To Get More Youth Out Of 'Toxic' Prisons

Liz Ryan’s appointment to head the Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) has been met with praise by advocates who have criticized the agency for not living up to its promise of delivering strong national leadership for juvenile justice reform.

Ryan led major efforts to end youth incarceration, including the Campaign for Youth Justice, a national initiative to keep kids out of adult court and jails, and the Youth First Initiative, which succeeded in closing six youth prisons and allocating $50 million to local communities.

At OJJDP, Ryan aims to transform the system as the head of a federal agency with 50 employees that awarded $400 million to states and tribal efforts last year to improve outcomes in the juvenile justice system. Her priorities include continuing to push for the closure of youth prisons, keeping offending children at home with their families while they receive treatment and services, and opening more job and education opportunities for justice-involved youth.

In an interview with the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange, Ryan recalled that when she started work in the field, the focus of juvenile justice "was very negative. In the 1980s and 1990s, many states passed laws making it easier to try kids in adult criminal court based on a prediction that there would be a wave of delinquent behavior — but that never happened.

"In fact, the opposite happened, with arrests and incarceration for youth going down. The field has shifted over the last 20 years from a defensive posture to a proactive one, advancing incarceration reforms and closing correctional facilities."

Ryan says her agency offers technical assistance, and competitive grants to support states and localities in implementing effective programs and services, utilizing best practices and what research shows works ... Our goal is to be the go-to agency for states and localities when contemplating changes in their youth justice system — hopefully, well in advance of any challenge they may encounter — and to support their efforts to get back on track."

Ryan says the majority of states' juvenile justice budgets is used for incarceration. In Virginia, more than half of its juvenile justice funding goes to youth corrections and out-of-home placements.

"Research shows that the incarceration of kids leads to a higher likelihood of re-offending, entering the adult criminal justice system, breaking family ties, and interrupting education," Ryan says. "These environments are toxic — they impede a young person’s growth and development. Research shows that incarcerating young people is the worst approach from the individual young person’s standpoint, from a family standpoint, and from a public safety standpoint. Yet the vast majority of resources that are invested in youth justice are invested in what I call the strategy that produces the worst outcomes.

"We want to reverse that to have the vast majority of the resources going to effective programs and supporting what the research shows works — family support, mentorship, and providing options to those young people so that they can get on the right track."

Ryan says many states are closing youth prisons, but "this process is happening in a haphazard manner, raising questions about what happens to the staff and resources in these facilities. We want to accelerate the closure of these facilities in a way that supports both the impacted communities and young people.

"Some of the old, large juvenile correctional facilities have been around for a long time and are the largest employer in the area. It’s very complex. If it was easy, it would have been done already. It’s threading a needle through several things: closing a facility responsibly, addressing the employment and economic concerns, then shifting the resources away from incarceration through the budget process and lifting up and supporting the communities that are most impacted by incarceration."


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