Oregon rethinking juvenile justice approach

Fewer youth locked up; Oregon called 'out of step'

PORTLAND, Ore. - In Oregon, 16 percent fewer juveniles are being incarcerated compared to 20 years ago -- but nationally, the drop is 40 percent.

A new report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation analyzing data from 1997 to 2010 says most states have expanded community-based alternatives to locking kids up, but there is still a long way to go.

David Rogers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said Oregon is out of step with what research says works for kids, because of mandatory minimum sentencing laws that treat them as adults when they're charged with a serious offense.

"We know that the best thing that we can do is to rehabilitate them, so that they can become productive members of society," Rogers said. "But placing youth in the adult system and giving them an adult felony conviction actually takes them in the opposite direction. It's a very serious problem."

The report recommends incarceration only for youth who pose a threat to public safety, and small, treatment-oriented facilities for those who must be confined.

Oregon passed a law in 2011 requiring that kids be held in juvenile facilities instead of adult jails, but Rogers said there hasn't been any funding to create those facilities in many communities.

A joint legislative committee is studying alternatives from the Governor's Commission on Public Safety. Rogers said for juveniles, one recommendation creates a set of hearings for a young offender sentenced as an adult, so a judge can periodically reexamine their progress.

"If that young person is doing well, a judge could allow them to be moved into mandatory community supervision, and avoid getting transferred to adult prison," he explained. "That's a step in the right direction."

Laura Speer, AECF associate director of policy and research, said about 75 percent of kids in detention are there for non-violent offenses, and the research shows locking them up only makes them more likely to re-offend.

"They have a chance to get their lives back on track, so we want to make sure they get put in the best possible program to get them back on track," she explained.

The report also calls attention to a racial gap in the juvenile justice system, noting that Latino and Native American youth are two to three times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers, and for African-American children, jail is five times more likely.

The report is available at www.aecf.org.

Chris Thomas of the Oregon News Service provided this story.

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