Willamette Week’s piece on juvenile justice in Oregon, “Spare the Jail, Spoil the Child?” [May 7, 2014], is a one-sided tribute to the dying gasps of dinosaurs. Across the country, states are recognizing the importance of using research and outcomes to drive our juvenile justice policies.
Prosecutors in Oregon see this trend as undermining their powerful role within our justice system and are trying to breathe life into a “tough on crime” belief system that is becoming increasingly extinct.
Let’s be clear: Youth who commit crimes need to be held accountable. That accountability must be proportionate to their crimes and reduce the chance they will commit other crimes in the future.
Readers of this article might be asking, “Why does Oregon have such a high arrest rate for juvenile property crimes compared to other states?” Arrest rates aren’t a good indicator of crime rates because they often reflect enforcement policies, not crimes committed.
A 2011 report on Oregon’s juvenile justice system found that our arrests for liquor and runaway violations were higher than average. This could simply be a policy priority. What we do know is that arrest numbers alone, as portrayed in this article, don’t give us the whole picture.
Contrary to WW’s claim that the juvenile justice system is “one of the least transparent parts of the state’s justice system,” it is in fact the state prosecutors’ offices that have virtually no oversight.
Elected district attorneys are not accountable for how they use state resources or what outcomes their policies and practices deliver. They have been beating the same “we want to send more people to prison” drum for 20 years, but no one is asking them: Do prisons and jails make people less likely to commit future crimes, more likely to pay restitution to victims, or more likely to keep our communities safe?
Juvenile justice research tells us the answer is no. Arguing that we need more incarceration in Oregon is like asking for teachers to be allowed to spank students. It’s not effective, and people educated in research on juvenile justice know it.
As we get smarter about our approaches to criminal and juvenile justice policy, prosecutors will have less power over the system and be forced to take their rightful place as one party in the adversarial process. The tide is turning, and prosecutors like Chuck French and his employer, John Foote in Clackamas County, will keep swimming upstream until the current is too strong for them.
It’s long overdue for district attorneys not to just call for accountability of others—whether it’s youth who commit crimes or the systems that hold them accountable—but to be subject to some oversight themselves.
Until that happens, rather than listening to their misleading closing arguments in the case for sending more youth to jail, remember that your district attorneys are elected officials and accountable to you through the ballot box.Shannon Wight, Deputy Director
Partnership for Safety and Justice
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