Voices of Youth Justice: Alisa Hartz Shares Insights from the OYCR Ombudsperson Division

Jun 28, 2024 | News, Voices of Youth Justice

Voices of Youth Justice: Alisa Hartz Shares Insights from the OYCR Ombudsperson Division

The Ombudsperson is someone whose job it is to help youth in a juvenile justice facility in California solve problems with how they are being treated. We talked to OYCR Ombudsperson Alisa Hartz, who assumed the role of Ombuds in January 2024, about the mission of the Ombudsperson, the impact of her work for California’s young people, and what gives them hope for the future of California’s youth justice system.

What drew you to work in youth justice at OYCR? 

I am an attorney with years of experience litigating cases related to education, homelessness, immigration, and criminal justice, always working to push systems to be more just to the people they serve.  

I entered state service to try to achieve the same goals, but from the side of government. I joined OYCR in 2021 as chief counsel because I believed strongly in the Office’s ability to shift the way California supports young people who are justice-involved. In this role, I provided legal and policy advice and served as counsel for the Ombudsperson Division, occasionally helping with screening, investigating, and resolving complaints. I assumed the role of Ombudsperson in January 2024, which has allowed me to spend more time on my favorite thing about this job: speaking with youths. 

Alisa Hartz

What is the role of an Ombudsperson? 

The Ombudsperson Division gives youth who are incarcerated access to a neutral party that listens to them and helps resolve their complaints where possible. We can also receive complaints from families, advocates, attorneys, staff, mental health providers, or others. We speak with and meet with youth confidentially, to request records that we can use in our complaint investigations, and to interview witnesses. In many cases, we have helped implement quick solutions that made a tangible difference. When needed, the Ombudsperson Division will elevate issues to legislators if they may need to be addressed through a law or policy change. 

In the past two years since it was established, OYCR has hired staff and laid the foundation for the Ombudsperson Division by developing a systematic, impartial approach to complaint investigations. Because this is a new office, this foundational work was crucial so that the division can effectively and fairly investigate complaints and work with partners to find solutions.  

Our team, in partnership with youth across California, also prepared a youth-friendly version of the Youth Bill of Rights this past year — which summarizes the rights of all young people who are confined in a juvenile justice facility in California. 

Can you share more about the Youth Bill of Rights and what it means for young people in California? 

California’s Youth Bill of Rights is a one-of-a-kind, monumental document that summarizes all of the  rights and protections that youth have while in juvenile justice facilities, including the right to live in a safe, healthy, and clean environment free from abuse; the right to post-secondary education and career training services; the right to contact attorneys and the Ombudsperson without retaliation; the right to quality health and reproductive care; and the right to maintain frequent contact with family. While youth have had these rights for many years, the Youth Bill of Rights gathers them all together in a format more accessible to youth, families, and advocates. 

OYCR is charged with publishing and distributing this document in youth-friendly language in youth justice facilities to ensure that youth are informed of their rights, can identify when they are being treated unfairly, and know who to call for help. The Ombudsperson Division has been and will continue to conduct trainings for youth and others on these rights. 

It has been extraordinary to hand incarcerated youth a copy of the Youth Bill of Rights and watch their reaction. You can see in their face that something is clicking when they see all their rights set forth together; it is a moment of visible civic empowerment.  


Where can someone access the Youth Bill of Rights? 

You can find the Youth Bill of Rights in both English and Spanish at our website, oycr.ca.gov/ombudsperson, as a brochure and a poster. If you know a youth who is in a juvenile justice facility, the Youth Bill of Rights should be posted and accessible, and all youth should receive a copy in their orientation packet and can request a copy on demand. Parents are also provided a copy. The Youth Bill of Rights poster and brochure detail the rights of a young person and how to contact the Ombudsperson Division.   

To request free copies of the Youth Bill of Rights, visit our website or email OYCRombuds@chhs.ca.gov 


What steps can be taken if a youth’s rights may have been violated? 

All youth in a juvenile justice facility have the right to ask a question or file a complaint with the Ombudsperson. Anyone can contact us if they believe that a youth’s rights have been violated or ignored or are concerned about the condition of the facility the youth is in. It is important to note that the youth cannot be punished or threatened for making a complaint. If rights are being violated or if a youth you know is experiencing harmful conditions, call 1 (844) 402-1880 or email OYCRombuds@chhs.ca.gov to file complaint.  


In addition to the creation of the Youth Bill of Rights, can you share another example of a change your office was able to help achieve? 

Our office works impartially with probation departments to try to achieve resolutions to complaints received.  When we are able to resolve complaints, it is because of our partnerships with receptive and dedicated probation departments that are open to youth concerns. And, often, our complaint resolutions draw on the Technical Assistance arm of OYCR. We have been successful in obtaining resolutions relating to food quantity, educational and programming opportunities, and facility policy changes. 

Requests for change can and has come from probation departments too. For example, we heard from a department that they would like to create new programming for youth in their facility, and the OYCR team helped connect them to contacts and models for developing music and poetry programs.  


What aspect of the work are you most proud of so far? 

I am proud of the work our office has done in putting together a brilliant team — a team that includes people with such diverse expertise including staff with lived experience in the juvenile legal system, a former probation officer, and staff with deep experience in the child welfare sphere. This diversity of perspective and experience is invaluable in helping us engage with youth, gain their trust, and hear their concerns, and in developing solutions to resolve their complaints by working with the probation department.  


What gives you hope for the future? 

It is incredibly inspiring to talk to incarcerated youth, and these conversations give me hope. So many of these young people have experienced profound adversity leading them into the legal system, and the resilience and self-insight of people so young never fails to inspire me. I think that if we can listen to them, they will show us as a society how to do better by them and by other young people at risk of legal system involvement.