For the eighth straight year, officials and citizens involved in the education, discipline and incarceration of juveniles in Oregon continue to wrestle with an ongoing problem: Why are more minority youths involved in the juvenile justice system than Whites?
Gov. Ted Kulongoski, along with the Oregon Youth Authority and a host of different departments and organizations, sponsored the 2006 Governor's Summit on the Over-representation of Minorities in the Juvenile Justice System on Monday. Speakers from across the state covered a variety of youth justice topics including gang recognition, American Indian Tribal Courts and why disproportionate minority contact exists, among others.
Sen. Avel Gordly, D-Portland, who mediated the day-long event, said the need for help in correcting the disparity is great.
"We need warriors committed to serving our children," she said.
Oregon Chief Justice Paul De Muniz addressed the diverse crowd gathered at the Double Tree Hotel, saying that the future of the country depends on the "capacity of people of different backgrounds and skin color to work together."
Policymakers in government, he said, need to acknowledge minority overrepresentation for the sake of public safety. Many times, when juveniles are confined in a juvenile lock-up, they will establish gang ties, learn from other juvenile offenders and be at more of a risk to re-offend than if they had been put into a diversion program.
Planning Committee Chair Lonnie Jackson said this year's conference focused on using evidence-based practices. Jackson, who is also the director of the Office of Minority Services for the Oregon Youth Authority, said by concentrating on the key decisions made by those dealing with juveniles, policy makers can determine where a systemic bias may occur.
Some of the topics covered by the long-running conference do seem to have an affect on prevention and intervention for juvenile offenders, although statistics can vary depending on the type of crime and the racial minority committing such crimes.
"We have had a drop in juvenile crime," Jackson said. "We still have dramatic differences with Measure 11 crimes."
Under Ballot Measure 11, which voters approved in 1994, juveniles convicted of violent crimes and serious sexual offenses are required to serve mandatory minimum sentences, with no possible reduction in time served. The sentences are determined by the specific crime; crimes that fall under Measure 11 range from arson to murder and include rape and assault.
Brian Baker, an attorney with the Juvenile Rights Project, said school disciplinary procedures play a big role in reducing overrepresentation. Juveniles who perform poorly, experience out-of-school suspension and have low family income, among other factors, are more likely to get involved in the juvenile justice system.
One pattern of discipline referrals across the state showed a higher number of "subjective" write-ups for minority youths; White students more often received discipline referrals for "tangible" offenses such as smoking or fighting. These subjective referrals — talking out of turn, the perception of disobedience or disrespect — illustrate a cultural divide between White teachers and minority students, Baker said.
In Portland Public Schools alone, African American students generated 43.5 percent of all major disciplinary referrals but consist of only 16.5 percent of student enrollment. Baker said studies show that African Americans do not misbehave at higher rates than other minorities or Whites.
Mary Skjelset, a third-year law student working with the Juvenile Rights Project, said overrepresentation was declining for years — until 2005. She said the ratio between Whites and minorities reflected societal ratios in 1999-2000, which she said supported claims that equality can be achieved.
Skjelset also said that White youth were more likely to be assigned to diversion than African American youths (43 percent to 34 percent) when comparing juveniles of similar crimes and backgrounds.
While the Risk Assessment Instrument system — a chart of positive and negative factors that determines whether a juvenile is incarcerated or released — has improved ratios, the program lacks teeth, Skjelset said. The system can be overridden by prosecutors and can be inherently biased against poorer communities where a "responsible adult" may not be found.
Other factors on the chart include severity of offense, legal status, warrant history, prior convictions and education/employment.
Looking at the period from 1997 to 2005, data provided from the youth authority shows an increase of 3 percent in African American arrests; 1 percent for Hispanics; 1 percent for Native Americans; and a decrease of 1 percent for Asians.
Compare all minority juvenile arrests with those charged with Measure 11 crimes, and a different picture arises. African American youths increased from 11 percent to 18 percent of those in the system; Hispanics increased from 15 percent to 20 percent; Native Americans increased from 2 percent to 7 percent; Asians decreased from 4 percent to 1 percent.
Figures for minority youths under the Oregon Youth Authority's jurisdiction currently in "close custody population" show a slight decrease for most ethnic groups; an increase from 11 percent to 16 percent for Hispanics; a decrease from 10 percent to 9 percent for African Americans; a decrease from 5 percent to 4 percent for Native Americans; and a decrease from 3 percent to 2 percent for Asians.
Despite heavy representation from organizations working directly with youth, such as the Oregon Commission on Children and Families and the Salem-Keizer Public Schools, the Oregon Department of Corrections was also involved in the planning process for the summit.
Nichole Brown, workforce development administrator for the department, said the summit serves the overall goal to reduce recidivism of youth offenders who risk becoming part of the adult population — those served by the Department of Corrections. The department became actively involved in the summit by applying the Oregon Accountability Model's tenants with the efforts of the youth authority and the governor's office. The accountability model provides a framework to reduce recidivism through training, supervision and post-prison planning.
Many speakers and experts said that every step in the system — from family life, to early education, to the way police and courts deal with minority offenders — plays a role in keeping the percentage of minorities higher in the juvenile justice system.