Sister Janet Harris

Advisory Board of the Center for Juvenile Law and Policy

Sister Janet Harris

On April 15, 2010, Sister Janet Harris celebrated sixty years with the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Catholic women’s congregation to which she pledged herself in San Francisco in 1950. The motto of this Order is “Non Vox Sed Votum,” which means “not words, but deeds.” Her embodiment of this ideal of service explains why our award is named after her.

Sister Janet grew up in upper Manhattan in an Irish, Jewish, and Italian neighborhood, where spending time at the Cloisters Museum of medieval art gradually drew her away from her first dream, which was to become a Broadway star. Instead, Sister Janet heard “God talking” and got herself to a nunnery. She professed to the Sisters of the Presentation in 1950, got her degree from the University of San Francisco in 1960, and a decade later found herself in Los Angeles teaching at Our Lady of Loretto High School. 

It is here where her education began in earnest: “I got my PhD  on the streets,” she’ll tell you. When gang members dared to vandalize the school’s walls, Sister Janet informed them that if they wanted to do something more useful with their time, she’d see to it that they could use the school’s playing fields every Saturday. They did. Subsequently making her thesis film about the 18th Street Gang and the Temple Street gang while completing an MA in filmmaking from Loyola University, she got to know her subjects in profound ways. She observed, she listened, she understood, and she received them on their own terms rather than impose hers. When she chose to be arrested rather than betray one of them to the police, her “street cred” was established. 

Eventually the Los Angeles County Probation Department offered Sister Janet a job as a gang counselor, after which she became Head of the Detention Ministries for the Diocese of San Bernadino and then Catholic Chaplain at Los Angeles Central Juvenile Hall. In 1997 Sister Janet cofounded InsideOut, a writing program for young offenders that introduced them to the transformative power of art and self-expression under the tutelage of writers like Pulitzer Prize winner Dwayne Noriyuki. It was also at InsideOut that Sister Janet met Mario Rocha, who was incarcerated at Juvenile Hall while awaiting trial for a murder he didn’t commit.

How the system failed a fifteen-year-old and sentenced him to 29 years to life; how he blossomed into an accomplished writer while in prison; how Sister Janet convinced a lawyer from Latham and Watkins to  represent him; and, finally, how Mario was released from prison in 2006 has become the stuff of juvenile-justice legend—as has Sister Janet. As an advocate of compassion, commitment, and speaking truth to power, she is an example to us all.  We are honored to acknowledge her commitment to juvenile justice issues by presenting tonight’s award in her name.