Part 2 of The Skanner News investigation into the juvenile justice system and Measure 11's impact on teens. Part 1 told the stories of Tristan, Andre and Jose. Part 2 looks at how one girl's life was almost destroyed when she was charged as an adult.
Meet Marina. Marina was 12 years old when she was placed in foster care. She wanted to live with her grandma, so she ran away from her foster homes. If she just kept running, her grandma told her, eventually case workers would give up. She could live with her grandma in Vancouver, Wash. That wasn't true.
Instead, when she was not yet 13, Marina was sent to a locked adolescent treatment facility in Lake Oswego, Ore. It was too far away for her grandma – who has no car – to visit.
"While I was there I met girls who were older than me and much harder," she says. "They were into things I couldn't even imagine. And I was really angry about being locked up -- because I hadn't done anything wrong."
A year later Marina was released to another foster home. And again she ran away. But this time she ran to one of the older girls she had met in treatment.
"This girl was involved with gangs and drugs so when I met up with her she introduced me to her lifestyle," Marina says. "I became a meth addict when I was 14."
A Girl on the Run
Look at Marina today and you will see an intelligent, focused and beautiful young woman. She is a student with goals and dreams. But for an entire year, while other girls her age were in high school classes, playing soccer and having sleepovers with friends, Marina was on the run from care. Then she committed a crime.
"Me and two other girls just decided it would be a good idea to steal this lady's purse. We pushed her over and tried to run away with it."
Caught and charged with the robbery – defined as a Measure 11 crime - Marina was sent to Multnomah County's Juvenile Detention center.
"I know I was wrong to do what I did," Marina says. "And I know I have to be accountable for my actions. But I really was not thinking right. I was staying at a crack house. I hadn't slept in four days and I hadn't eaten in a week. I was hungry."
Staff at the detention center helped her stop and think, she said.
"I wasn't babied or anything; they held me accountable for my actions, but they did really care about me."
At age 15, Marina was charged as an adult.
The Worst of the Worst
Oregon's Measure 11 passed in 1994, as a sure-fire way to get the most dangerous criminals off the street. But Measure 11 does much more than that. As well as laying out mandatory minimum sentences for 24 crimes, the law says 15, 16 and 17 year olds accused of 'person to person' crimes must be charged and sentenced as adults.
"Is this really being used to get the worst of the worst off the street, which is the way it was being sold to voters?" questions Shannon Wight, associate director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice. "Or is it just ruining kids lives?
"There are severe consequences to having a felony crime on your record. We know it is a huge barrier to pursuing education, getting a job, being able to find a place to live. And that follows you for ever. A lot of these teens end up adult convictions that they carry with them."
You Can't Put Old Heads on Young Shoulders
A growing number of experts argue that there is another powerful reason not to treat teens as adults: their brains do not function in the same way as adult brains. Whoever first coined the proverb, 'You can't put old heads on young shoulders' was apparently onto an enduring truth about human development.
Developmental psychologist Laurence Steinberg of Temple University argues that the law should recognize that adolescents are not just adults with fewer miles. Speaking to the American Psychological Association last year Steinberg said:
"As my colleagues and I have argued, an offender who, by virtue of developmental immaturity, is impulsive, short-sighted, and easily influenced by others should be punished less harshly than one who is better able to control himself, anticipate the future consequences of his behavior, and resist the antisocial urgings of those around him."
Throwing Gasoline at a Flame
Joe Doherty is a licensed clinical social worker who has spent 34 years working in evaluation, crisis intervention and treatment of adolescents and adults. He has worked with many teens with problems.
"The studies show that even through college into their 20s the pre-frontal cortex of the brain is not fully developed: that's the executive function and it has to do with fully understanding the consequences of behaviors, and repeating behaviors," Doherty says.
Normal young people can be highly impulsive, lack mature judgment and are more influenced by their peers. Add alcohol, drugs, or extreme stress to the equation, he says, and it's like, "gasoline and a match in terms of the danger.
"You have the disinhibition of the teenage brain and then the disinhibiting effects of the substances used. The two coming together are more likely to result in impulsive or destructive behavior, especially in males."
His work has brought him into contact with thousands of young people in crisis situations.
"And in my experience most of these kids already have post traumatic stress disorder. They have had multiple traumas – especially if they have been in the foster care system… When people are traumatized, emotions tend to take over from judgment: they're going to be impulsive, reactive and ruled by emotions, rather than by logic. That happens to adults too, but in what we call a "soft" brain, an adolescent brain, that is magnified exponentially."
As a court examiner in Multnomah County, Doherty gives expert testimony in mental health commitment cases.
"Our justice system as a whole doesn't distinguish between trauma, addiction and anti-social personality disorder," he said. "Studies have shown that anti-social personality disorder can't be treated, but addiction and trauma can be. If you treat the addiction and the trauma you will have a higher chance of changing the behavior.
"So if we are trying to get to the root of the problem and change these kids' behaviors we're going the wrong way about it."
Youth of Color: "Over-arrested and Over-charged"
New research from the Partnership for Safety and Justice shows that 62 percent of youth charged with Measure 11 crimes are not convicted of these crimes. Oregon's African American teens are hit hardest. The research shows that two of every 100 Black boys in Portland are arrested on Measure 11 crimes, Wight says. Far fewer are charged and even fewer ever are convicted of these crimes. Yet, because those cases take longer to come to court, teens charged with Measure 11 crimes typically spend 5 months in detention.
"African American kids seem to get overcharged at the front end," Wight says. "We know that because we know what they eventually are convicted of. So it looks like they are being over-arrested and over-charged. That's true for all youth of color according to our report."
Could Marina Reclaim her Life?
This week Marina is finishing her first term at Portland Community College. She plans to continue studying there until next fall, when she hopes to transfer to a 4-year Oregon university. Her career goal? Marina wants to graduate with a degree in criminal justice. "I want to work with the juvenile justice system," she says. "I'm hoping that they might be more forgiving and more inclined to hire me because I have been through these things and overcome them."
She knows what it's like to be sitting in a jail. An adult jail. After her conviction, she ran away one last time, violating her parole. She was sent to an adult jail, where she spent most of her days locked up in isolation. That's policy for teens in many jurisdictions, for their own protection. She remembers feeling terrified. The other inmates scared her, she says. But she counts as her worst moments the times when corrections officers mocked her and predicted she would end up just like those desperate, scary women inmates.
"We as teenagers should be held accountable for our actions," she says, "but I don't believe sending kids to an adult jail will get good results. It's creating more criminals – lifetime criminals."
In the end it was a compassionate judge, who knew her from the foster care system, and a foster mom with a deep well of love and patience, who helped Marina reclaim her future. The judge released her from the adult jail, and sent her to the drug and alcohol treatment program housed in the juvenile detention center.
"I was lucky to get a judge who knew me," she says. "I've made big changes emotionally -- drastically different. And I was lucky to get a foster mom who really cared, and saw the potential in me, and never gave up."
Since then Marina has worked hard to get her life back on track, not without bumps. She is the single mother of a two-year old. She keeps upbeat by focusing on her goals. Still, her Measure 11 conviction affects everything she tries to do to rebuild her life.
Branded as a Felon
Opportunities for two work placements—in the Bureau of Land Management and at Providence hospital – fell through, because of policies against hiring Measure 11 felons. Even the convenience store Plaid Pantry turned her away.
"It's so embarrassing," Marina says. "Because they don't know me and who I am, they think, 'Felony and robbery –you're probably going to rob my store.' I've worked at a couple of places where I omitted to say anything about my background, but other places have turned me away when I have told them."
Now, trying to find an apartment, she has been rejected by numerous property management companies. Most have policies against housing felons. If she had been charged with a drug crime, she might have been unable to pursue her education. Drug convictions prevent many young people from getting financial aid for school.
Shannon Wight says Marina's difficulties are not unusual. A Measure 11 conviction is one of the hardest labels to overcome. Marina says, she's got good luck and she's determined make it through.
"Right now, I'm trying to survive until I get to that place, but it's a challenge."
Crime is Catching
The consequences of jailing teens can be severe both for the youth and for society. Long-term research at the University of Montreal followed at-risk boys from kindergarten through adulthood. It showed that the youth who entered the juvenile justice system were seven times as likely to commit more crimes – even though their behaviors were the same as the control group who managed to avoid contact with the justice system.
"The more intense the help given by the juvenile justice system, the greater was its negative impact," said Professor Richard E. Tremblay, co-author of the report.
"Most countries spend considerable financial resources to fund programs and institutions that group deviant youths together in order to help them. The problem is that delinquent behavior is contagious, especially among adolescents. Putting deviant adolescents together creates a culture of deviance, which increases the likelihood of continued criminal behavior."
Tremblay said the research suggests the most effective interventions include prevention efforts that work with children and families before they reach the teen years, and programs that avoid placing delinquent youth together in one setting.
Could Measure 11 Be Making Crime Worse?
Supporters of Measure 11 say the legislation protects society by keeping violent criminals under lock and key. However, a June 2010 report from The National Juvenile Justice Network, suggests that jailing teens reduces their chances of becoming healthy, productive, contributing adults. Youth in jails are prey to abusers. They are more likely to kill themselves. And teens who spend time in jail statistically are far more likely to keep on committing crimes.
"Virtually every study of youth sent to large juvenile correctional institutions in the past 30 years finds a 50-70 percent recidivism rate within one to two years of release," the report notes. "In contrast, some programs that provide alternatives to traditional confinement for youth who would have been prison-bound for the commission of serious, felony drug and/or violent offenses, report a reconviction rate for violent crimes of only 4 percent."
A study by the Task Force on Community Preventive Services published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine looked at the impact of transferring juvenile delinquents to the adult prison system. It concluded: "the weight of evidence shows greater rates of violence among transferred than among retained juveniles; transferred juveniles were approximately 33.7 percent more likely to be re-arrested for a violent or other crime than were juveniles retained in the juvenile justice system"
Despite Oregon's mandatory sentence laws, Multnomah County has a national reputation for tackling these issues and improving the statistics. According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the county lowered the daily teen detention population by 65 percent. By doing so, the nonprofit maintains, the county is saving taxpayers $2 million a year, and untold money down the line. How? Teens who don't get sent to jail are far more likely to finish school and become productive members of society rather than criminals.
More: Inside Multnomah County's teen jail
Interactive map showing juvenile incarceration by state
NOTE: Marina wanted to tell her story, but The Skanner News has changed her name.
From Top: Artist's depiction of Marina; Professor Laurence Steinberg; Joe Doherty LCSW; Artist Arvie Smith worked for a year to create five striking murals with youth in the Donald E. Long center; Boys Behind Bars;