Higher Learning: Sister Janet Harris

Sister Janet Harris with IOW teacher Scott Budnick

Sister Janet Harris with IOW teacher Scott Budnick

“Sister Janet has been a warrior for the rights of young people who find themselves caught up in a broken juvenile justice system.”

–– Ian Graham


InsideOUT Writers is honored to be a part of a community of organizations and individuals who are committed to transforming the juvenile justice system.  This column highlights people who are making a difference, and in this issue, we spotlight one of IOW’s founders and a tireless advocate for social justice, Sister Janet Harris.


With force and a sense of urgency, Sister Janet Harris opens our conversation saying, “California has not reached its potential in terms of justice.”  She is absolutely correct.  Recent statistics show that California incarcerates more than 16% of all juveniles in the U.S., more than double the national average.   The majority of these youth are incarcerated in LA County, which is home to the country’s largest probation system.


Amidst this injustice, she believes InsideOUT Writers is the “light in the darkness.”  She shares that 15 years ago, as the chaplain at Central Juvenile Hall,  she founded IOW, along with LA Times journalist Duane Noriyuki, as a way to help young people recognize their worth through writing and to bring about change through their voices.


Sister Janet believes the dedicated staff, board, teachers and volunteers that IOW has been graced with have been given a gift – and the gift is that they have been mandated to be prophetic voices.  While Sister Janet is quite humble and often gives the credit to others, it is well-known and universally agreed that she is IOW’s bravest and most vocal champion.


“From the moment I met Sister Janet Harris twelve years ago,” said former IOW Board Chair Eva Stern,   “it was obvious that she had a passionate mission to provide a voice for children that otherwise were considered invisible.  This passion was and is contagious and I have observed and participated in this journey with my dear friend, Sister Janet Harris, who continues to pursue this important mission.”


This 81-year old miracle worker will never stop.  As a juvenile advocate, IOW Board Member and Advisory Board Member for the Loyola Law School Center for Juvenile Law &  Policy, Sister Janet remains a powerful force in the community.  From the founding of IOW, to initiating the process that resulted in the release of Mario Rocha, to being a critical player in securing $1 million to start the new Juvenile Innocence & Unfair Sentencing Project at Loyola, Sister Janet  is still leading the charge in the fight for reform.


As Ian Graham, IOW’s Vice-Chairman of the Board and author of Unbillable Hours said, “day to day, for decades, Sister Janet has been a warrior for the rights of young people who find themselves caught up in a broken juvenile justice system.  Her compassion and resolve have helped so many see a brighter future and inspired countless others to commit to the effort.”


As long as there is work to be done, Sister Janet will make sure her voice is heard.