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It is such a pleasure to join you all today. The Office of Justice Programs is so pleased and honored to once again be part of this annual summit.
I want to thank our partners at MENTOR for bringing us all together, and for the outstanding work they continue to do to guide the young people of our country.
And let me commend all of you for your commitment to supporting, counseling and empowering our youth. There is arguably no more essential work, especially in these challenging times.
The world has become a seemingly more complicated—and in many ways, a more difficult—place for our kids. The pandemic has disrupted, and in many cases cut off, many of the traditional networks of support—connections with teachers, links to community organizations, even relationships with extended family members and other trusted adults.
Gun-related crimes have hit some communities hard, exposing young people to a cycle of trauma and, for some, justice system involvement that can be hard to escape. And stubborn disparities and inequities in our justice system, and throughout society, continue to keep young men and women of color from moving ahead and realizing their potential.
The challenges are formidable, and no one should have to face them alone. Which is why an army of trained, dedicated mentors is so vital.
Mentors serve as a source of inspiration for young people who often need additional role models in their lives. But I don’t think that description goes far enough. Mentors are also a bridge to self-sufficiency and self-confidence. Good mentors motivate by example, but they also give kids the tools and skills they need to navigate the twists and turns of life.
And evidence backs up the value of mentoring. Studies have found that connecting youth to mentoring programs is a viable strategy for both preventing and reducing delinquent behavior. One randomized controlled trial found statistically significant declines in rates of re-arrest and number of arrests for a two-year period following program participation, and the impact was actually most evident for relatively serious felony offenses.
The benefits for youth should always come first, but mentoring is so rewarding for the mentors as well. Early in my career, I was a mentor to an at-risk youth. We met each week one on one, and again in a group setting at her school. I often think back to what I learned from that experience, about both the challenges youth face and the extraordinary things they can accomplish when someone believes in them.
I’m pleased and proud that our agency has provided substantial support to mentoring programs for more than two decades. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is the largest federal funder of mentoring programs.
OJJDP has awarded $1.2 billion to mentoring organizations since 2008, and in December, we awarded an additional $89 million in mentoring grants. From 2017 to the first half of 2021, OJJDP-funded programs served about one million youth. And almost 150,000 new mentors were recruited over the last 18 months.
These programs are doing some incredible work. For instance, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America mentoring initiative is connecting children and teens with caring mentors in low-income communities in all 50 states. Many of these young people have been victimized or caught up in the juvenile justice system. Some are dealing with substance use disorders or suffering from the impact of opioids. A number are American Indian and Alaska Native youth or members of military families who are experiencing unique risk factors. Boys and Girls Clubs are providing them with both one-on-one and peer group mentoring and engaging them in an array of evidence-based skill-building activities. They’ve even found ways to reach youth through virtual mentoring.
Big Brothers Big Sisters of America is another great example. They manage their own major mentoring effort with our support. They’re working to reach youth ages 9 to 17 who live in areas with elevated rates of crime and violence, a high prevalence of illegal drugs and the presence of gangs. Some have incarcerated parents who need support. Big Brothers Big Sisters is providing high-quality one-to-one mentoring matches, and they’re continuing their fantastic Bigs in Blue program, which is connecting youth with law enforcement mentors and helping to build trust between police and the communities they serve.
Our partners at the National Association of Police Athletic/Activities Leagues are also doing great work connecting youth to law enforcement mentors through the National PAL Mentoring Program. The program is helping to generate a healthy mutual respect between youth and community authority figures.
And I’m very excited that we recently awarded a grant to the National Urban League to support the next iteration of its Project Ready Mentor program. This is a multi-state initiative in five Urban League affiliate communities across five states. They’re working to help youth in historically underserved urban areas build social connections, move from grade to grade on time and graduate from high school ready for college or work.
These programs, and so many more like them, are providing hope and opportunity to young people across the nation. And I’m grateful for the outstanding work that MENTOR continues to do recruiting and training mentors through the National Mentoring Resource Center. Last year, the Center responded to more than 530 requests for training and other support from school-, community- and faith-based mentoring programs. Those programs, in turn, reached more than 80,000 youth.
We are working hard—in collaboration with national, state, local and tribal partners—to make our juvenile justice strategies more responsive to the needs of young people. Our goal is to keep them out of the system, to find supportive alternatives to punishment and to help them stay in school, find jobs and remain connected to their families and communities. Mentoring is clearly a cornerstone of that strategy.
And we are seeing movement in the right direction. Youth arrests and residential placements are at historic lows. Instead of warehousing and writing off kids who engage in delinquent behavior, we are honoring their capacity to respond positively and productively to support and intervention.
But along with these encouraging developments, there are still some challenges. Long-standing inequities continue to penalize people of color. Black youth are still far more likely than their white peers to be held in juvenile facilities. We must come to terms with the damage this is doing—to those young people, to their families and the communities they live in, and to our society as a whole.
President Biden has made it clear that advancing equity and racial justice is a top priority of his Administration, and it’s a top priority for me, as well. In addition to our mentoring investments, OJJDP is supporting a number of programs that will support youth in the system and help achieve greater equity—initiatives like our juvenile indigent defense program, our Second Chance Act youth reentry program and our Juvenile Justice System Reform Initiative, which is improving outcomes for youth while helping to save millions of taxpayer dollars.
We’re proposing to build on these investments. We hope to provide even more funding this year for programs aimed at keeping kids out of the justice system and supported in their communities whenever possible. For example, one of the major proposals in the President’s budget request for this fiscal year is a Community-Based Alternatives to Youth Incarceration program that will provide incentives to jurisdictions that introduce reforms designed to reduce youth incarceration.
We are on the right path. Our juvenile justice system is reclaiming its mission to support kids and ensure that they are valued members of our communities. We are relying less on punishment and more on education, training and other pro-social measures that can bring long-lasting, positive change— mentoring being among the most important. We are focusing our lens on the potential in our youth, and with the work that each of you is doing, I believe we are creating a brighter future for our kids, for our communities and for our country.
Thank you for all you do, and I hope you’re able to make the most of this summit.