Thank you, Liz [Ryan], and thank you, Julie [Herr].
Good morning, and welcome to all of you. I want to thank you for joining us today for this event. Let me start by thanking my amazing colleague, Liz Ryan, for the outstanding work her office is doing to protect our nation’s children and keep them out of the juvenile justice system.
My thanks, as well, to the council’s designated federal official, Julie Herr. Julie is one of the many truly smart, talented professionals who work every day to carry out the critical mission of our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
I’m also very grateful that we’re joined by Henry Gonzales and Dr. Sujeeta Menon and others from the Houston area, who have invested countless hours in their efforts to improve local services for system-involved youth. We are so pleased that you agreed to host this meeting and can’t wait to learn more about your work and how it might inform other efforts across the country.
As I look across the room, I am excited to see so many federal agencies represented. This is, I believe, the first time we have ever met outside of the greater Washington, D.C., area, so I want to thank all of you for your commitment and for traveling here to Houston to attend this important meeting. I cannot stress enough the power of interagency collaboration, and how vital that partnership is for achieving our common mission.
And I want to recognize and thank those of you who bring your expertise as practitioners. Your insights and perspectives as advocates, as judges, as juvenile justice professionals and as national leaders are indispensable to the work we are doing here and, I am confident, will help determine the course of juvenile justice in America.
The power of partnership is on full display here. We all share a goal – of a nation where children are free from crime and violence, and where youth interaction with the justice system is rare, fair and beneficial. And through your willingness to engage in collective problem solving, tapping the combined wealth of your expertise, I know that, working together, we will be able to build on the impressive momentum the juvenile justice field has generated in recent years.
We’re also building on the power of proximity today – going into communities where the great challenges are being faced and met – learning about exciting new initiatives like the Harris County reinvestment fund and the Opportunity Center, which we’ll see first-hand later today.
And then there’s the power of narrative, of hearing from young people whose lives have been changed and whose success can be traced to the work you are doing and the guidance you are providing. It’s these stories that offer hope for so many others – and I hope that this narrative will help shape how people think about our nation’s youth and what they are capable of achieving.
Your collaboration, your willingness to travel here to Houston, to be in proximity to the youth we’re here to serve, and your openness to the potential for positive change – these attributes are so heartening and set the stage for the great day ahead of us.
We have made so much progress thanks to leaders like all of you, and thanks to forward-thinking professionals like our partners here in Houston. Our investments in mentoring, in community-based services and in pro-social interventions are paying clear dividends. But we’ve got more work to do.
Liz’s team is supporting a wide array of approaches that are designed to minimize youth contact with the justice system, and to make it fair and beneficial when necessary. This is so critical, because investing in our youth at the front end – reaching them where they are developmentally – is the best way to head off later encounters with more serious crime and with the adult system.
We know that children fare better when they are served in their communities, close to their homes and near their families. And we know that unnecessary confinement, especially in adult prisons, yields the worst outcomes. Research shows that young people in adult facilities experience lasting trauma and are more likely to suffer sexual assault and violence than their peers in youth facilities.
It is imperative that we continue to explore and establish alternatives to incarceration and keep our youth out of the system whenever possible. We must work hard to keep our young people close to their support systems. That, ultimately, is how we will help our youth realize their potential and ensure the safety of communities across the nation.
You’ll hear much more about our approach from Liz. I’m proud that our Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention is supporting efforts to prevent children from entering the system or becoming deeply entrenched in it. These programs are community-centered, evidence-based and multi-disciplinary, and they address a multitude of areas such as mentorship, community violence intervention and reentry. These programs offer hope, not just to those enrolled in these programs, but to all who want to see those young individuals succeed in life.
The Opportunity Center and the Harris County reinvestment fund, as we will hear today, are two examples of exactly the kind of collaboration and innovative thinking that give us hope and inspire us to do more. And the challenge for the federal agencies here is to learn from Harris County’s efforts and consider how we can foster similar successes in communities across the nation.
Our vision at OJP – and it’s one I know we all share – is for safe, just, healthy communities. And we firmly believe that communities themselves can and should play a vital role in this work, serving as co-producers of safety and justice. Our goal is to build out a robust community safety infrastructure, one that draws on the strengths of partners across sectors to catalyze transformative change.
Today, we’ll get to see this philosophy in action at the Opportunity Center, where justice system partners have come together with leaders across the Harris County community to uplift kids in need. One community-based partner is outfitting kids with new school clothes, another is stocking the school’s food pantry so kids can bring nutrition home each weekend. Other organizations are connecting students with hands-on career learning experiences, with mentorship and case management services, and opportunities for arts and enrichment.
With the collective support of community-based organizations and multi-sector service providers, the Opportunity Center is helping justice-involved students thrive inside the classroom and out. It’s a powerful example of what’s possible when we come together to ensuring that every child is treated fairly and is set up to succeed.
Thank you for joining us today and thank you for all that you do for our children and our communities.