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Remarks of Amy L. Solomon, Acting Assistant Attorney General, at the OJJDP State Relations and Assistance Division National Training Conference (Virtual)

Monday, November 08, 2021

State Relations and Assistance Division
National Training Conference

      Thank you, Chyrl [Jones].  It’s a pleasure to join everyone today.

      Chyrl, I want to thank you and your team for organizing this conference and for the outstanding work you all do to make our juvenile justice system responsive to the needs of our youth and the communities they live in.

      And I want to thank everyone in our virtual audience – Designated State Agency representatives and State Advisory Group members – and I know there are others here who work closely with the states and territories to meet the core protections of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act.  We appreciate all that you do to strengthen our juvenile justice system and to make it both fair and effective for those it serves.

      We’re here today, and we’re doing the work we do, because we believe in our nation’s youth.  We all want the best for our young people, we all want to empower them to make the best choices, and we all want to set them up for success.  We share a common goal, and that is a juvenile justice system that enables positive growth and development.

      The phrase “rare, fair, and beneficial” governs our work at the Office of Justice Programs in the juvenile justice space.  We believe that contact with the juvenile justice system should be rare:  our goal should be to support most youth in most situations in the community.  But when it is necessary, we expect system contact to be fair and helpful to youth and their families.  You play a critical role here, and have an enormous responsibility, but we know you have stepped into these roles because you care, and because our kids are worth it.

      I want to begin by addressing an issue that I know is top of mind for everyone.  Last week, those of you who oversee formula grant funding from our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention received a letter from Chyrl outlining the steps we’re taking to ensure compliance with the provisions of Title II.  To recap for a moment, Congress, when it passed the Juvenile Justice Reform Act in 2018, made it clear that OJJDP “must restore meaningful enforcement of the core requirements in title II” – their words.  Clearly, there was a sense that past enforcement measures had not met the mark, and Congress required that we do an internal assessment to see where we could improve our systems to ensure compliance by the states.

      In response, Chyrl’s team, in collaboration with other program and legal experts at OJP, took a close look at our internal systems as well as state compliance monitoring manuals to make sure they were in alignment with statutory and regulatory requirements.  What they found was that our internal systems needed a refresh and that the manuals, in many cases, were not in alignment with these requirements, at least not consistently.  And that, I think we’d all agree, is a serious problem.  But it is a problem we can solve together.

      This is precisely why we’ve embarked on a period of internal and external system changes – a “reset” if you will.  Change is hard and change takes time.  But the end goal here – protection and support for our youth – is that important, and we believe these reforms will move us all in the direction we need to go.

      Part of this change is that OJJDP is developing an annotated template that states can use to bring their manuals into alignment with the statute and its many requirements.  This is the first time we’ve developed such a template, and we believe it will provide a clear roadmap and will lift the burden on states.  We’ve promised to get that template out to the states by December 15.  From there, states will have up to 180 days to do whatever revision is necessary and resubmit their manuals to OJJDP.

      Please know that during this time states will not – I repeat, states will not – be placed in the “non-participating” category.  We want to keep you engaged and for you to remain in this grant program.  We are looking at this time as a pause, so that states can get their manuals where they need to be in order to be in compliance with the law.

      We’re not leaving you on your own, though.  Our goal is to help every state resubmit their manuals on this timeline, and we will be providing training and technical assistance to help with the revisions, beginning tomorrow at this conference.  OJJDP staff will also be available to answer any questions and address any concerns along the way.  Once OJJDP has reviewed and accepted a state’s revised manual, we will be able to move forward with the award process.  Let me add, too, that some states may be prepared to resubmit very quickly, and we encourage that.  We will review submissions, and make awards, on a rolling basis, so you need not wait 180 days if you are ready to submit sooner.

      Now, I don’t want to downplay the challenges this creates for many of you in terms of planning and workloads, especially since your awards will come, in some cases, much later than expected.  But please know that we are committed – absolutely committed – to moving through this process as expeditiously as possible.  We’re investing our training and technical assistance resources in supporting this effort, and we aim to be as helpful as possible to each and every state.

      There will be more about this throughout the conference.  I hope that you will engage with the staff we have on hand, talk over ideas and let us know if you have any questions and concerns.  My senior counsel, Kevonne Small, who recently joined OJP from the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, is dedicated to working on the Title II reset.  My senior advisor Eileen Garry, who is a veteran in the juvenile justice field, also stands ready to help.  And TeNeane Bradford and Lucia Turck-Gamble from Chyrl’s team are working full-time to make sure this transition goes as smoothly and as quickly as possible.  We are at your disposal, ready to listen and ready to help.

      We have plenty else to talk about today, and some good progress to report in our collective work to strengthen juvenile justice.

      I want to begin by celebrating the fact that juvenile arrests and residential placements are at historic lows.  Confinement of youth has, in fact, dropped by about half over the past decade.  This is wonderful news, and a testament to the work you’re doing on the state level to institute evidence-based reforms.

      What we are seeing – and this is so encouraging – is that policymakers and practitioners are relying on research, and particularly advances in our understanding of brain science, to develop supportive interventions and policies.  I’m very pleased that the Office of Justice Programs has been in the vanguard of this movement.  Back in 2012, at the request of OJJDP, the National Research Council released a landmark report on advances in behavioral and neuroscience research, drawing out the implications for juvenile justice reform.

      Of course, one of the major research products in the field remains OJJDP’s Pathways to Desistance study, which contributed to the NRC findings.  The upshot of that report is that the vast majority of juveniles who offend, even those who commit serious crimes, grow out of antisocial activity as they enter adulthood.  To put it in technical terms, desistance is normative in adolescence.  This has such major implications for our work, because it confirms that young people who engage in wrongdoing are not destined to a life of crime.  In fact, they are very amenable to intervention and change.

      Two factors impede this natural aging-out process – trauma and incarceration.  And these are two factors we need to confront and address.

      Along these lines, one of my top priorities is to help spur reforms in the juvenile justice space so that we’re supporting youth as much as possible in their communities. And we’re making progress. OJJDP recently made eight awards totaling almost $8 million to state agencies and national organizations under its Juvenile Justice System Reform Initiative. The underlying idea here is to develop and test research-based responses to public safety challenges, with an eye toward improving outcomes for youth. OJJDP launched this program seven years ago, and we’ve seen great success. In Kansas, for example, juvenile justice reforms led to the expanded use of community-based programs as an alternative to detention. This has improved outcomes for youth and saved the state more than $30 million.

      We plan to build on this and other investments.  The President’s FY22 budget requested almost $800 million for juvenile justice programs – which is more than double existing levels – again with an aim to keep kids out of the justice system and supported in their communities whenever possible.  Included in that is a Community-Based Alternatives to Youth Incarceration program, which looks likely to be funded at $50 million.  It would provide incentives to jurisdictions that introduce reforms aimed at reducing youth incarceration.  This program will also allow grantees to repurpose empty juvenile detention facilities for the benefit of youth.  I am so excited about this one, and hope it’s just a first step to even bigger incentives and reforms.

      Importantly, we also need to address the trauma and violence that so many justice-involved youth experience in their young lives.  We know that exposure to early trauma has innumerable negative consequences – everything from truancy and poor academic performance to long-term psychological harm and a tendency to engage in delinquent and criminal behavior.

      And unfortunately, we find that most youth who enter the juvenile justice system already have had experiences of victimization.  In many cases, they’ve also been seen by child welfare agencies as well.  These experiences can’t be ignored.  In fact, they are critical to helping us determine the best intervention strategies.

      The White House launched its Community Violence Intervention Strategy in April, and reaching high-risk youth is central to what we are trying to achieve, both by addressing the effects of trauma and by stepping in early to interrupt the cycle of violence.

      We have substantial equities in the President’s strategy, not the least of which is OJJDP’s Strategies to Support Children Exposed to Violence program.  We’ll be making several awards in the coming days to address the impact of violence on youth.  Our Office for Victims of Crime is also supporting a Hospital-Based Victim Services Program and a new Center for Culturally Responsive Victim Services that are intended to reach high-risk youth who are victims as early as possible to interrupt the cycle of trauma and violence.

      One more big item to discuss is addressing the long-standing racial disparities that continue to undermine the goals of fairness and equity that we are all trying to achieve.  A recent report from the Sentencing Project found that Black youth are more than four times as likely as their white peers to be held in juvenile facilities.  The incarceration rate of Latinx youth is also higher than the rate for white youth.  These disparities actually represent a modest improvement, but they are still unacceptable.  And tribal youth disparities have grown even worse.  Tribal youth are now more than three times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers.  We’ve clearly got a lot of work to do.

      President Biden has made it clear that advancing equity and racial justice is the responsibility of the whole of our government.  His executive order on Advancing Racial Equity was the first EO he signed as President, and it sends a clear signal that the task of confronting racial disparities cannot wait.

      OJP is making substantial investments in programs intended to reach historically underserved and marginalized communities, many of which are communities of color.  OJJDP is funding a number of programs this year that will support youth in the system and help achieve greater equity, like its juvenile indigent defense program and the Second Chance Act youth reentry program.

      I’m also very pleased that we are investing in social science research to address the intersection of race and justice.  This year, our National Institute of Justice re-opened the W.E.B. Du Bois Fellowship for Research on Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in the Justice System.  This is a great program that supports experienced researchers and rising scholars to study public policy interventions that are designed to reduce disparities.

      I’ll also mention that we are thinking hard about these issues when it comes to our grantmaking.  As we delve into our plans for FY22, we are exploring ways to expand our applicant pool and our reviewer pool, as well as our stakeholder reach generally.  We want to make sure that we are hearing from and getting resources to communities that have been hard hit and are historically underserved.

      As we work to address the challenges of racial equity and justice reform, we continue to look to the field, and to our partners across government, to guide our efforts.  We anticipate reinvigorating the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice – the “FAC-JJ” as we call it – very soon.  As many of you know, the FAC-JJ is made up of appointed representatives from the nation’s Juvenile Justice State Advisory Groups, and advises the President, Congress and the OJJDP Administrator on juvenile justice issues and concerns.   We are also in the process of reviving our Coordinating Council on Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, which hasn’t met since March of 2020.  We are gearing up to re-launch with a meeting, ideally in early 2022.

      We will, of course, also be leaning on all of you for your wisdom and expertise.  There is such tremendous momentum in the juvenile justice arena, and you are helping to drive the positive change that we are seeing across the country.  We welcome your insights and advice on how to build on this progress.

      We are so pleased to be your partners and stand ready to do everything we can to help you make our juvenile justice systems as strong, as fair and as supportive of our youth as they can possibly be.

      I look forward to our work together and to joining you as we lift up our young people and support their path to a bright future.

      Thank you.


Date Created: November 10, 2021