Last week, the Governor's Summit on Minority Overrepresentation in the Juvenile Justice System brought together dozens of Oregonians – including Sen. Avel Gordly, Portland police chief Rosie Sizer and Gov. Kulongoski — to discuss solutions to the injustice that sees African American kids incarcerated at far higher rates than youth of other races.
"We have some Hispanic and some Native American overrepresentation but the African American population is the most overrepresented in Oregon Youth Authority's closed custody system," said Lonnie Jackson, director of minority services for the Oregon Youth Authority. "Statewide African Americans are 1.6 percent of the population, but they make up almost 12 percent of the youth in our youth correctional institutions."
The number of Hispanic residents in Oregon is growing so quickly that it's hard to gauge exactly how racial disparities in the juvenile justice system play out for Hispanic youth, Roberts said, but the figures suggest they may be overrepresented in youth jails.
Native American youth make up about 6 percent juvenile inmates, although they are just 2 percent of Oregon's youth, according to Oregon Youth Authority statistics for 2007. Only Asian and Pacific Islander youth appear not to be disproportionately incarcerated.
Friday's event was the ninth annual governor's summit called to address the problem, yet the number of youth of color in custody remains disturbingly high.
"I think it's a national problem," Jackson said. "You have to be vigilant, because there was a time when perhaps there was more progress being made in terms of some reduction of overrepresentation of youth of color in the system, but now there seems to be a swing back and the numbers are increasing.
"What the summit does is continue to raise awareness and offer key players, partners and stakeholders the opportunity to network and collaborate — because no one agency can resolve this; it's really going to take a collaborative effort."
At the summit, politicians, child welfare workers, lawyers, childrens' advocates, educators, police, professors, probation and parole officers, youth workers, nonprofit representatives and social justice activists gathered at workshops dealing with everything from how to prevent students from dropping out of school and how to tackle racial bias in school discipline to child abuse, policing policies, treatment and reentry programs. Johnnie Lake, a researcher from the University of Oregon who also chairs the State Commission on Black Affairs called for early intervention programs, cultural competency training for teachers and a lot more honesty about race. Lake explained that African American youth start feeling less valued than White children very early on.
"Mothers come to me and say 'What can I say to my child when he tells me he wants to be White?'" he said.
"Where is this child getting this from? It's from seeing how other people – White people — are treated. Race starts having currency for these kids very early… So when we get to high school these kids are afraid to start talking about race and ethnicity.
"And then we start talking to them about diversity."
But diversity discussions in schools fail, Lake said. Adults lack cultural competence and White kids feel it has nothing to do with them. Which leaves kids of color carrying all society's racial baggage alone.
"The people who pay for our failure are our children and the generation coming after us," Lake said.
Sheryl Dash, a member of the Oregon Youth Authority's African American Advisory Committee, said she attended the summit to learn about prevention.
"I learned that we need to listen more to the kids, take what they say, ponder on it and evaluate it. A lot of the things they say are valid. If more adults would listen to them – especially the mainstream majority population then change would come about," Dash said.
As an administrative worker with the Department of Human Services, Dash said she hoped to be able to share what she'd learned with her colleagues.
"I'm going to take everything I have learned here, add some of my own information and help build awareness among the people I work with," she said.
According to research posted online at the Governor's Summit Web site, (www.oya.state.or.us/dmc/minovrep.htm) the reasons why so many more African American youths are in custody are connected to other problems affecting the Black community. These include: poverty, dropping out of school, lower educational achievement levels, poorer job prospects and bias from decision makers in schools, at agencies and at various decision points within the juvenile justice system.
Research shows that at the nine key decision points in the juvenile justice system, African American youth are more harshly treated than Whites. Not only are they arrested at higher rates – which community justice advocates link to racial profiling – but they are less likely to be ordered to diversion and treatment programs, and more likely to be placed in custody.
In addition legal changes such as the Measure 11 law, have resulted in African American youth spending more time in prison.
"It seems that youth of color tend to penetrate the system quicker and deeper than non-youth of color," Jackson said. "There is sometimes inherent bias within the system. So I think that with the summit, we try to have folks come and understand: What are those root causes that contribute to minority overrepresentation?"
Despite Oregon's problems, the state is making headway, Jackson said. Gov. Kulongoski is the only governor in the country to have made the issue a priority. Moreover his decision to increase funding for head start programs will improve educational opportunities for underprivileged children.
"The more we can do to prevent young people from getting into the system, that is the best way. And that means starting at a very young age; so I support all the early prevention type programs that can help produce healthy strong productive young people and families."