It might have taken them 16 years to do it, but the Multnomah County Juvenile Services Division says it has finally reduced the overrepresentation of African American youth in detention before trial.
After implementing a new system for deciding who to detain or not last year, Juvenile Services has been able to reduce detention of African American youth by 15 percent, bringing them better in line with their representation of the population.
The new detention policy has also been credited with reducing recidivism from 18 to 13 percent, reducing overall contact with police by 11 percent and having no change in the failure to appear rate.
African Americans still remain overrepresented in the Juvenile Justice System -- and often comprise 50 percent of the county's detention facility population.
"As we are facing a difficult budget, it is imperative that we have good alternatives," said Family Law Judge Nan Waller, who helped form the new policies.
Every month for the last 16 years the Multnomah County Juvenile Justice Council has convened to work on policies that better serve the youth entering the criminal justice system, while protecting the community and holding young offenders accountable in productive ways. On Tuesday, several members of this council convened at the 10th annual Governor's Summit on Eliminating Disproportionate Minority Contact in the Juvenile Justice System to talk about the methods of their success. Youth workers from around the country gathered to learn about the county's successes.
Back in 1992, the Multnomah County youth detention facility was in shambles. The facility was overcrowded, unsafe and not conducive to help offenders reform themselves, according to Waller and others.
"There was even a hot pink room for (problem youth)," Waller said. "Whoever thought that color was calming …"
Julie MacFarlane, a defense attorney for the Juvenile Rights Project, said the system to determine whether a youth should be detained before trial was also in need of reform. Defense attorneys often met their client minutes before seeing a judge, and were having to talk with their client and read the case files at the same time, all while trying to formulate arguments for alternatives to detention. The entire Youth Services Division, unlike their adult counterpart, has a mission to find the least restrictive means of providing safe supervision for youth.
A lawsuit from MacFarlane's office – the Juvenile Rights Project — challenged those conditions, resulting in a new facility.
"The problems they were having at detention they're not having now," Waller said. "It's a much better environment."
During this time, the council created the risk assessment instrument. In use in various forms for 13 years now, the instrument allows authorities to determine which method of pre-trial supervision should be used – detention or a form of community supervision. Whether a youth is released or detained is based on a score, in addition to the severity of the crime, says Rob Halverson, community justice manager at Multnomah County.
"Giving more points for the seriousness of the crime hurt the ability of the test to determine (recidivism rates)," he said.
In other words, by giving the crime a score in the risk assessment instrument, they were arbitrarily detaining youth who may have had no greater risk for re-offending than youth committing a crime with a lower score. When they had an independent auditor examine their scoring system, the auditor found that the crime had little to no indication of future criminality.
"We had to be very clear about the types of behaviors where the score didn't matter," Halverson said.
If youth commit extremely serious crimes – murder, burglary 1, rape, felony assault, etc. – they are automatically detained. For other less serious crimes, officials have discretion, depending on the score. And for misdemeanors, release unless the offenders score indicates other troubling behavior.
"We're not taking the sound judgment of professionals, throwing it away and putting it all on this score," says Deputy District Attorney Tom Cleary.
But taking away the unintentional or subtle biases out of the detention decision has helped level the playing field, says Waller. While the number of youths being detained has remained relatively stable, members of the Juvenile Justice Council say the system is working better for everyone.
"We weren't making good decisions on who was in and who was out," Waller said.