Liz Ryan, who for decades has quietly led the fight to close youth prisons and lower the use of incarceration in juvenile justice, now has quite the megaphone.
Ryan, the founder of Youth First Initiative and the Campaign for Youth Justice, has been appointed by President Joe Biden to lead the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), a relatively small agency within the Department of Justice. She will take the helm on May 15.
“Liz Ryan is an impassioned advocate for America’s youth and a visionary whose actions have benefitted our nation’s young people in countless ways,” said Amy L. Solomon, who leads the Office of Justice Programs, the division of Justice where OJJDP resides, in a statement released yesterday. “As a champion of reform and as a proven problem-solver, she will put our children first and help guide our nation toward smarter, more just and more humane juvenile justice policies and practices.”
Ryan said in the same statement that she looks forward to advancing “effective youth justice reforms and to expand opportunities for young people to grow and thrive.”
The announcement prompted a round of celebratory statements for a person known within the field as a convener adept at forging partnerships, coming to an agency that has had little engagement with juvenile justice advocates in recent years.
“There is no national leadership on juvenile justice reform right now,” said Vincent Schiraldi, senior fellow at the Columbia Justice Lab. “Liz can really provide that.”
“I couldn’t think of anyone better to take on this role,” said Marc Levin, chief policy counsel for the Council on Criminal Justice, and an advisor to the Right on Crime Initiative, in an interview with Youth Services Insider. “She is incredibly knowledgeable and cares deeply about improving juvenile justice.”
After serving as an advocacy director for the Youth Law Center, Ryan started the Campaign for Youth Justice to push state reforms around reducing the amount of youth who were transferred into criminal courts and adult jails and correctional facilities. Youth are often sent into the adult system due to laws that mandate the transfer when certain serious crimes are alleged, or at the discretion of judges or prosecutors. In three states — Georgia, Texas and Wisconsin — all 17-year-olds are tried in the adult system.
While the Campaign for Youth Justice’s work was focused squarely on state use of the adult system — the organization closed down last year — she helped start the Act 4 Juvenile Justice campaign to help push for the reauthorization of the federal Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act. That law, among other things provides states with formula funding in exchange for compliance with several core federal standards around the use of incarceration in the juvenile justice system.
After being blocked several times over the course of a decade, the law was reauthorized in 2018. Among the changes in the bill: federal requirements around limiting the use of incarceration for status offenders, coordinating the transfer of school credits, and the creation of a national measure for recidivism.
By the time that bill passed, Ryan had moved on to start the Youth First Initiative, a nonprofit that provides national advocacy for the closure of youth prisons while assisting more targeted grassroots efforts to shut down specific facilities in cities, counties or states.
Juvenile justice advocates were quick to extol the choice of Ryan to lead an agency that many of them say was absent from leadership during the Trump administration, and has lacked a dynamic reform-minded administrator since Shay Bilchik, who served under former president Bill Clinton. The top job at OJJDP was once a post that required nomination and Senate confirmation; during the Obama administration, legislation relegated it to appointee status.
“I can’t imagine where her vision is more necessary,” said Marcy Mistrett, of Impact Justice, who once succeeded Ryan at the Campaign for Youth Justice. “In a department so decimated by lack of leadership and vision, this is just the opportunity of a lifetime to re-center kids, put them in the middle of OJJDP again.”
Mistrett said that while former president Donald Trump signed the reauthorization of the Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Act, the agency did little to help states understand and comply with the significant changes in federal policy that the law included.
“She has got to get the money out the door and states into compliance in quick turnaround, so that states believe it’s possible to do the changes,” she said. Under Trump, “they were not given the tools they needed to implement the reauthorized law.”
The OJJDP budget also includes funding for mentoring programs, support for finding and helping missing and exploited children, and violence prevention. Biden’s 2023 budget calls for some big increases to most of those lines, and proposes $30 million to help states better serve “crossover youth,” those who are dually involved in the juvenile and child welfare system and $100 million for alternatives to incarceration.
There is a less administrative upside to having someone like Ryan in this post that several supporters described to us with the same two words: bully pulpit. While there is no data that suggests youth are committing crimes at a higher rate, young offenders have become a focal point in the discourse about the increase in violent offenses since the pandemic, particularly in the area of carjacking and auto theft.
That has prompted some calls among legislators to roll back reforms of juvenile justice that have developed since the misguided superpredator scare of the early 1990s, which was embraced by leaders in both parties. In New York, which recently raised the age of its juvenile justice system to include 16- and 17-year-olds, state lawmakers and New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently sought (unsuccessfully) the ability to treat more of those teens as adults again in cases where guns were involved.
“I have not seen data indicating that youth or even emerging adults are responsible for more crimes or homicides,” said Levin, who noted that there is “a lot of work to do” post-pandemic on helping students who have struggled with the erratic nature of education in the past few years without getting the justice system involved.
For at least two years, Ryan will have a chance to stand in front of podiums, with the seal of a federal U.S. agency, and push back against narratives that cast youth as a primary source for society’s ills.
“Under Liz’s leadership, OJJDP can play a crucial role in countering these pushes to return to the ‘tough on crime’ days and instead, accelerate investments in what we know works to support the well-being and safety of our youth, their families, and their communities,” said Youth Correctional Leaders for Justice in its statement on Ryan’s appointment.
The opportunity goes beyond speeches, said Schiraldi, who led a reform of Washington, D.C.’s juvenile justice system that saw a significant downsizing of incarceration in favor of community-based interventions.
“She can convene people, and she can put out research that has the administrative stamp of the Department of Justice,” Schiraldi told Youth Services Insider. “That’s not nothing.”
Ryan steps into the role succeeding Chryl Jones, who has served as acting administrator since the inauguration in 2021. Recent presidential appointees to the post include Caren Harp, who lead the agency during the Trump administration, Bob Listenbee during the later years of the Barack Obama administration, and Bob Flores during the tenure of George W. Bush.
Correction: This article originally noted that Marc Levin works for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, his previous employer. It has been updated to note his present title.