Courtney Vaughn/Pamplin file photo
Oregon incarcerates young people and transfers them to adult court at a greater rate than most other states, according to a report released Tuesday by the Oregon Council on Civil Rights and the nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center.
The report found that the state’s policy of charging youth as adults under Measure 11 is “a harsh and costly practice that stands at odds with a contemporary understanding of brain science.
“While other states have modernized their approaches, Oregon has not,” the report states.
Passed by voters in 1994, Measure 11 imposed minimum mandatory sentences for certain serious crimes and according to the report, helped to contribute to Oregon’s high incarceration of youth and a disproportionate rate of incarceration of black youth — which is 26 times higher.
Prison can have a lifelong effect on young offenders’ ability to secure housing and employment.
“Youth charged under Measure 11 — even those who do not receive an adult sentence — face lifetime barriers to education and employment,” said state Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who appoints members to the civil rights council. “Oregon’s juvenile justice system brings high costs and poor outcomes. We should modernize our approach to better prepare young people to have a meaningful life after release.”
Although research suggests that the brain is still developing until a person is in their 20s, Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentences fail to consider a young person’s capacity to change, according to the report.
“Brain science tells us that for youth, the brain is still ‘under construction’,” said Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capuia, a physician, scholar and executive director of Oregon Health Science University’s Avel Gordly Center for Healing. “Young people lack the skills to effectively navigate an adult criminal justice system that disrupts the development process at a critical stage. Oregon should join the many other states in recognizing the role of brain development in criminal justice reform.”
The 69-page report recommends policy reforms aimed at a “more effective, fair and science-informed approach to youth involvement in the justice system.” The report was authored by Roberta Phillips-Robbins, civil rights council chairwoman, and Ben Scissors of the Oregon Justice Resource Center.
• Improvements in data collection and transparency: Making prosecution data, such as demographic data of youth referred to prosecutors’ offices, publicly available supports evidence-based policymaking.
• Youth charged under Measure 11 should not be automatically moved to adult court: A judge should weigh the facts of each case before removing a young person from the juvenile system.
• Give youth a “second-look” hearing: Every young person should have the chance to grow and change during detention. After serving half of a sentence, youth should be entitled to a second-look hearing, a review of the offender’s progress and rehabilitation.
• Address root causes: Oregon should boost investment in anti-poverty safety net programs that promote family stability and decrease future involvement with the criminal justice system. Along with preventative measures, employees throughout the criminal justice system should be trained in trauma-informed care, cultural responsivity and brain development.
Leaders from the Oregon District Attorneys Association, who have resisted other attempts to weaken Measure 11, were not immediately available as of 5 p.m. Tuesday to comment on recommendations from the report.
The report also found that black youth are more than 26 times more likely to be incarcerated in Oregon compared with whites.
The state spends as much as nearly $100,000 a year to incarcerate one young Measure 11 offender, the report found.
“Oregon can do more to improve public safety outcomes while giving young people a chance to thrive,” said Roberta Phillip-Robbins, chairwoman of the Oregon Council on Civil Rights. “…we hope to be a force to adjust our misguided approach to youth and Measure 11. It’s clear that we can make better use of taxpayer resources while improving public safety and reducing recidivism in communities around the state.”