Spare the Jail, Spoil the Child?

For years Oregon has believed less prison time for juvenile offenders is the ideal. A new report suggests that may be wrong.

Donald Anthony Beckwith stole his first car when he was 15. The next year, in August 2005, he mugged a couple near the downtown Hilton. Just short of his 17th birthday, Beckwith and a buddy, high on meth, tried to shoplift cigarettes and beer from a Plaid Pantry.

Three convictions in three years, and each time Beckwith got probation. He lucked out, because Multnomah County is one of the hardest places in the United States for a juvenile offender to get locked up.

Beckwith's good fortune ended in 2007, when he and another man got shot while breaking into a Clackamas grow house to steal drugs and cash. The break-in got him sent to MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn to serve out his suspended sentence for the Plaid Pantry robbery. He remains there today, serving time for breaking into the drug house.

Beckwith is a rarity in Oregon—someone who is actually doing hard time for crimes committed as a juvenile. His criminal history, contained in a February clemency application he filed with Gov. John Kitzhaber, illustrates an essential conundrum of juvenile justice: When is it appropriate to put a kid behind bars?

In Multnomah County and across Oregon, keeping juvenile offenders out of jail whenever possible has become the ideal. Over the past two decades, the number of juveniles held in detention in Multnomah County has plummeted by more than 80 percent—far more even than in other counties that have embraced reform.

Fewer kids are arrested here and fewer are charged. That's had a direct impact on state juvenile correctional facilities, which incarcerate convicts. The number of Oregonians held in state juvenile correctional facilities has dropped by nearly 60 percent since 1997, even as the number of adult prisoners is higher than ever.

The force  behind this policy shift is the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a Baltimore-based, $2.7 billion nonprofit. Casey's strategy, pioneered in Multnomah County and now embraced in 39 states, is aimed at keeping kids with their families, in school and free from the stigma of jail.

"Their approach has been one of the most successful reform efforts we've seen in juvenile justice," says professor Barry Feld of the University of Minnesota Law School. "They've addressed the most significant shortcomings of the juvenile system, including the disproportionate confinement of minorities and the overuse of detention."

The Casey philosophy has rarely been questioned in Oregon—until now.

Chuck French, a number-crunching former prosecutor, spent three months looking at Oregon's juvenile justice system, often using data compiled by Casey.

His findings: Oregon ranks second among the most expensive juvenile justice systems in the nation. Yet the state's rates of nonviolent juvenile crime—thefts, robberies and drug offenses—are among the nation's highest.

"I looked at the stats and said, 'This can't be right,'" French recalls. "Because I've heard for so many years what a great system we had."

French's report pulled back the curtain on one of the least transparent parts of the state's justice system, and could start a statewide debate about how Oregon holds young offenders accountable.

So far, French has been welcomed like a skunk in church for daring to challenge what has become an article of faith. Scott Taylor, director of Multnomah County's Department of Community Justice, his normally smiling face reddening, calls French's conclusions "bullshit."

But Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis says close scrutiny of Oregon's juvenile justice system is overdue.

"I don't believe Chuck French is trying to pick a fight," Marquis says. "I think he's just trying to start a conversation. But some juvenile directors, apparently led by Multnomah County, seem to want to go to war over his report."

Tucked between I-84 and Northeast 68th Avenue, Long is a low-slung, tan cinder-block edifice rebuilt in 1995. It's where juveniles are booked after arrests, appear in front a judge, and are sometimes held in locked cells.

The building's spotless linoleum floors and vibrant inmate-painted murals could make you forget it's a jail. Inmates choose meals from rolling carts, receive five hours of schooling a day, and have access to outdoor basketball hoops, a full-sized gym and a variety of behavioral training.

"We've heard from some kids that they'd rather be here than home," says Craig Bachman, Long's manager.

Beyond the cleanliness of the facility, one feeling is unavoidable for a visitor—Long feels a little lonely.

“A lot of people remark how quiet it is here,” Bachman says. 

That's because the cells are mostly empty. In 1995, its 191 beds were regularly full.

Today, more than two-thirds of those beds are unused. Last year, an average of 48 beds per night were occupied—about half of them rented out to Clackamas and Washington counties to house their juvenile offenders.

The shift toward empty cells is a direct result of the Casey Foundation, which was started in 1948 by one of the founders of United Parcel Service.

Almost 25 years ago, Casey began the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, seeking to reverse a "get tough on crime" approach that swept the nation in the 1980s.

Casey's philosophy is that dragging kids into court and putting them behind bars makes things worse, not better.

"Juvenile detention facilities are often dangerous and abusive," says Bart Lubow, director of Casey's Juvenile Justice Strategy Group and the chief architect of the foundation's alternatives initiative. "They are ineffective, ridiculously expensive and often unnecessary—only about one-quarter of the kids who are locked up are violent offenders."

Casey's interest in juvenile justice coincided with a crisis in Multnomah County. Public interest lawyers sued the county in federal court, alleging the county's juvenile detention center was overcrowded and inhumane.

Lubow led the team that selected Multnomah County as the site of one of Casey's "model" sites, which would come to serve as labs for the rest of the nation.

In 1994, Casey provided a $2.25 million startup grant and began applying what Lubow says is a more rigorous approach to detention. Before Casey, Lubow says, juvenile authorities had little rationale for who got thrown into a cell. But with Casey's help, they developed a risk-assessment tool aimed at making sure only the highest-risk juvenile offenders were locked up.

“In Portland, they developed a matrix that made detention relatively obsolete,” Lubow says. 

Multnomah County became one of Casey's four "model" counties and today, on the second floor of the Long center, two Casey-funded employees spend much of their time explaining the Casey approach to visitors from other states.

Last year, records show, Casey paid Multnomah County $169,891 to support the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. Over the past decade, Casey has paid Multnomah County $1.8 million, and its program officers make regular visits. Lubow says he's been to Portland at least 30 times since establishing the program here.

"People come to Oregon to see how we do business," says Multnomah County's Taylor. "They wouldn't do that if we weren't a national leader."

Casey's influence on the justice system is clear. First, relatively few arrests actually result in charges being filed against Oregon juveniles. Among states reporting, Oregon has the fourth-lowest rate of charging juveniles—it happens in just 32 percent of cases, compared to a national average of 55 percent.

Second, of those juveniles who get arrested in Oregon, federal statistics show that only 10 percent are held in pretrial detention facilities such as the Long center. That rate is less than half the national average.

On its website, Casey extols Multnomah County's success: Arrests are way down, and so are the number of juveniles who are charged. The average number who stay in Long's cells each night is down nearly 90 percent since 1992. (See chart below.)

Today, the initiative that began in Multnomah County and three other places across the U.S. has spread to more than 200 counties in 39 states. (Several other Oregon counties have also embraced Casey's reforms.)

"Casey's approach has become the accepted way of doing things," says Marc Schindler of the Washington, D.C.-based Justice Policy Institute. "They are the leading proponent of what are considered the best practices in the field."

Casey's beliefs about juvenile justice were about as unassailable locally as recycling—until Chuck French came along.

Stubborn Numbers
Despite innovative policies and heavy spending, Oregon has seen juvenile property crime rates (as measured by arrest rates per 100,000 residents) remain among the nation's highest.

In 32 years in the Multnomah County District Attorney's Office, French, 61, became known for taking on special projects. When the county commission wanted an investigation of then-Sheriff Bernie Giusto, French got the call. When then-District Attorney Mike Schrunk wanted someone to look at runaway jail costs, he chose French, a soft-spoken, sandy-haired Ohio native.

French retired in 2012 and now works part-time doing research for Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote. "He's just a straight shooter," Foote says of French. "It's all about the facts with Chuck."

Last year, the Legislature created a task force charged with tracking how new adult sentencing guidelines are working, and with examining issues in the juvenile system. Foote noticed a sharp decline in the number of juvenile offenders the Oregon Youth Authority was moving into community facilities. Puzzled, he asked French to find out why.

French says he initially assumed juveniles were simply serving shorter sentences.

But when he looked at data, he realized fewer juveniles were coming out of the system because fewer were entering.

"That was a function of a declining number of arrests and a decline in the number of juveniles being charged," French says.

French then asked the obvious question: What effect was Casey's anti-incarceration philosophy having on crime rates?

The answer is complicated. For the past 20 years, crime is down across the U.S.

For the past decade, Oregon's adult crimes have fallen faster than the rest of the nation's. But French found that Oregon's juvenile crime rate, as measured by FBI statistics, remained stubbornly high.

There are two kinds of juvenile crime: violent and property.

Juvenile violent crime rates in Oregon rank well below the national average. That would seem to indicate the juvenile system is working.

That's not the case, and here's why: 15-to-17-year-olds who commit violent crimes in Oregon are prosecuted as adults. That means most of the decline in juvenile violent crime cannot be attributed to the juvenile system.

So French concentrated on crime rates that are affected by the juvenile system, such as property crimes.

A decade ago, Oregon had the third-highest overall property crime rate in the nation. But adult and juvenile crime rates diverged. Property crimes committed by adults have since declined, and Oregon now ranks 21st in the nation.

Juvenile property crime rates, however, remain high compared to most states, and Oregon ranked fifth in the U.S. in 2010, the last year in which the FBI published complete statistics.

French's conclusion: Oregon's adult justice system is doing a good job in reducing crime; the juvenile system, despite its high spending (see "The High Costs of Incarceration," below), is not.

"When I looked at crime stats," French tells WW, "I said, 'Wow.'"

Foote and French shared the report with the Oregon Youth Authority, the state's 36 district attorneys and each county's juvenile justice directors, who work with prosecutors but not for them.

The report went off like a bomb.

The juvenile directors saw French's report as an attack on their beliefs and their turf.

"We know what works and what doesn't," Multnomah County's Taylor says. "The claim that we're not doing as well as other states—I just don't believe that."

The Casey Foundation's Lubow also read the report. He doesn't think much of it.

"It's a pretty superficial analysis," Lubow says. "The author seemed to be searching for a problem that isn't here. He's trying to say Oregon has a terrible juvenile crime problem. I don't think citizens or people in the system would agree."

On April 17, the Oregon Juvenile Department Directors Association produced a 12-page rebuttal to French's report. The rebuttal argues that the counties use "best practices," and cited significant declines in juvenile crime in Oregon—a 60 percent decrease since 2000.

But what the rebuttal didn't do is compare Oregon's juvenile crime rates to other states', as French's report did.

The juvenile directors object to French's use of FBI uniform crime statistics, because not all states report, and those that do may use different standards. "There's not been, to my mind, a good way to compare states to states," says Ellen Crawford, director of the Clackamas County Juvenile Department.

French acknowledges the FBI numbers are imperfect but says there's nothing better. "You'll never be able to compare one state against another if you don't use the FBI stats," French says. "The juvenile directors honestly believe they should not be judged on crime rates. That's a little disturbing to me."

The county juvenile directors also point to the progress they've made in reducing recidivism—falling from 34.8 percent to 27.1 percent since 2000. That sounds impressive, but again, they fail to compare Oregon to other states.

The disagreement between French and juvenile justice officials is partly philosophical.

"DAs believe incarceration is an accountability moment that needs to happen," Taylor says. "There's a whole other group of us who are more interested investing in the community and reducing incarceration."

French says juvenile directors are unaccustomed to anyone challenging the status quo.

"If you could show me that not holding a kid accountable is actually better than holding him accountable, I'd be open to that," French says. "If it lowered the crime rate here, I would accept that. But that hasn't worked."

At MacLaren, Beckwith has earned his GED, begun college classes and trained as a welder and carpenter. He's also earned a barber's license and has the promise of a job cutting hair if he receives clemency. Dozens of pages of letters from prison officials, community members and teachers suggest Beckwith has come a long way from the night he nearly died at the wrong end of a shotgun.

On Oct. 4, 2007, at 3 am, he and his crew sledgehammered their way into a Clackamas drug house.

As Beckwith and an accomplice beat one resident, another resident fired on the intruders with a pistol-grip shotgun, hitting Beckwith twice. Police found Beckwith bleeding on the floor, a chunk of his intestines "the size of a softball" lying next to him.

The break-in got Beckwith a conviction for burglary. When he reaches his next birthday, by state law he'll be transferred to an adult prison for the remaining 26 months of his sentence.

Beckwith's imprisonment has cost the state a lot of money. It also kept him from committing more crimes.

"Since being incarcerated, I've had time to prioritize my life and get a handle on my anger," Beckwith wrote to Kitzhaber. "The time I have spent in the Oregon Youth Authority correctional facilities probably saved my life."

Beckwith is just one man. Generalizing from his experience would be a mistake. Juvenile justice reformers make compelling arguments about the benefits of keeping kids out of jail, citing hosts of studies supporting their approach.

But locally, those officials have operated largely without independent scrutiny—Multnomah County's juvenile system has not been audited for a decade. And officials ignored a scathing 2009 review of Multnomah County's juvenile system produced by Crime Victims United, a law-and-order advocacy group that has few allies in Portland.

In virtually every other government endeavor—education, taxation, public health—comparing Oregon to what's happening in other states is fundamental.

The juvenile department directors' reluctance to address French's critique suggests it's time for a full-blown public debate.

Taylor says he wishes French had consulted him and other reformers before attacking their work.

“We would love to have a transparent, open discussion,” Taylor says. 

French and Foote say that's exactly what needs to occur.

"I don't know if their philosophy is wrong or the implementation is wrong, but it hasn't worked," French says. "Looking forward, we need to engage all sides of this issue in a discussion. That's what hasn't happened here.” 

The High Costs of Incarceration

So when Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote asked French to examine the juvenile system, one of the first things French looked into was cost.

Using numbers collected by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, French found Oregon and its counties spent $245 million on juvenile corrections in 2008, the last year figures were published. On a per-capita basis, that spending ranked Oregon second in the nation, behind only Wyoming.

It's unclear why Oregon's system is so expensive compared to other states. One reason might be overhead costs: At the state level, the Oregon Youth Authority employs about 1.5 staffers for every inmate held in custody and operates 10 facilities to house just 622 inmates.

In Multnomah County, it's staffing that drives up costs at the Donald E. Long Juvenile Detention Home. Budget figures show that just the cost of detaining and providing education and health care last year cost $548 per night per inmate. That's more than five times the cost of keeping an inmate in Oregon's adult prisons, which are among the nation's most expensive.

To French, there's a paradox.

"What surprised me was the results of that spending," he says. "I really felt that if we spent that much money, we'd have lower crime rates. But it doesn't seem to have worked out that way."

The Casey Foundation's Bart Lubow says juvenile justice is inherently expensive. But Lubow also says reducing the number of juveniles behind bars saves a lot of money. That's because non-incarcerated kids do better in school and in the workforce than kids who've been behind bars. And because fewer inmates means fewer cells and less staffing and services.

"Multnomah County mothballed three pods in its juvenile facility," Lubow says. "Each one saves $800,000 in staffing costs."

Scott Taylor, director of Multnomah County's Department of Community Justice, says as the number of juveniles detained shrinks, per-capita costs naturally grow.

"It's very expensive." Taylor says. "Nobody could argue that." NIGEL JAQUISS.

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.