Last month, a delegation from King County’s juvenile justice system and representatives of the County Executive’s Office, County Council and Columbia Legal Services went to visit Multnomah County to review its juvenile justice system. We could not take notes fast enough. Over the past 22 years, Portland has created a web of community alternatives to detention and prosecution that we aspire to. We came away inspired to follow their example.
Upon our return, we were reminded that we don’t have 22 years. Three young African-American men were shot over Presidents Day weekend; two of them fatally; all allegedly shot by fellow teenagers. In meetings before and after that weekend, I heard demands for immediate action by grieving African-American mentors of these young men. “Our brothers are dying in the streets,” said one. “And all you people are talking about is more meetings!”
Nothing we heard about in Portland would enable us to stop the carnage in this part of the community immediately. What we heard about there was the result of longstanding collaboration among stakeholders dedicated to helping young people and their families through difficult times. It is the result of incremental change.
We need to develop alternatives to detention and prosecution here, but doing so will require a lot of meetings, process, dialogue and collaboration. Meeting by meeting progress is made, because each meeting directs the work to be done before the next one. For example, the Court recently approved two policy changes at Juvenile Court that should keep hundreds of youth out of detention over the course of the next year. Planning these changes, winning the support of stakeholders such as the police and the prosecuting attorney, training staff, and setting up an evaluation mechanism required scores of meetings over a 10-week period to make this a reality on February 29.
There is no question that King County and its cities need to confront the crisis unfolding in our African-
American community. In the past, this sort of collaboration has fallen short. The solutions to the immediate crisis need to unfold on street corners and in community centers and high schools, far beyond the reach of the Court. As much as we wish we had the power to do more, the Court’s role is to lead the plodding, step-by-step, incremental approach of Portland and other model Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative sites around the country.
And yet, our community is demanding action on racial disproportionality. No jurisdiction, including Portland, has been able to improve racial and ethnic disparities except to the extent that youth of color, as well as white youth, avoid detention as much of the time as possible. Portland showed us some new ways to go about this.
The highlight of our visit to Portland was what they call the “11 o’clock meeting.” Every day a group gathers to examine the situations of all the youth who were arrested in the past 24 hours. The group consists of the lead prosecutor, probation, a defense representative, advocates for community alternatives to detention and, believe it or not, a representative of the Oregon version of DSHS.
All of us — especially a lawyer from Columbia Legal Services — gasped when we heard that a social worker from the state agency regularly participates in the meeting and, when appropriate, the Department will accept youth for placement. In Washington, chronic underfunding of the Children’s Administration has forced DSHS to prioritize young children over teens; as a result the level of cooperation between the offender and dependency systems we saw in Portland is something we can only dream about.
During the Portland group’s meeting, the situation of each individual youth is discussed to determine if there is an alternative to detention, such as utilizing a very robust electronic home-monitoring program. On the day we visited, three young people were discussed. We heard about the offenses; the services that have already been provided (for example, a 13-year-old boy already had a therapist visiting his home three times a week); and what alternatives might be available. The team decided to recommend to the judge that all three youth be detained. They promised us that this outcome is very rare.
In Oregon, there appears to be a great deal of freedom for prosecutors to choose to handle crimes “informally,” through services arranged by the probation department. The driving concern is to limit how much young people touch the juvenile justice system while ensuring that the community is safe.
Juvenile history does not count against adults charged with crimes in Oregon (unlike Washington) and juvenile records are not publicly available (unlike Washington). And, also unlike Washington, there are no restrictions on providing services to youth who have not been formally prosecuted and convicted. In Washington, a conviction or a formal, statutory diversion on a misdemeanor is required. Only our Legislature could move Washington’s juvenile justice system to be more like Oregon’s.
Even given these dramatic differences in the two states’ laws, there is much we could borrow from Portland. For example, Portland turned to Volunteers of America to operate its electronic home-monitoring program. In addition to sophisticated GPS and satellite technology, the program provides 10 home visits a week for a youth new to EHM, gradually reducing the number of home visits as the youths prove themselves. The technical and personal monitoring gives judges the confidence to release “deep end” kids to electronic monitoring, including those charged with serious assaults, gun offenses and sex crimes.
The EHM program has an 87-percent completion rate, greatly reducing failures to appear and the commission of new offenses while cases are pending. Typically cases in Portland are resolved in 30 days, rather than the 120-day track in Seattle. But resolution is a lot easier where a juvenile conviction is neither public nor used in adult court. The savings (which can be plowed back into other programs) are staggering: detention costs $300 a day in Portland, versus $36 a day for a youth on electronic monitoring.
Another innovation that King County is already considering copying is Portland’s Harry’s Mother, which oversees a reception center and Garfield House, a temporary placement for runaways. The idea is that police bring youth arrested for minor offenses (e.g., shoplifting) or who are runaways to the reception center. Parents and guardians are called and the family is linked to appropriate services. The effort with low-level offenders grew out of community demand for greater intervention earlier in a youth’s life; in King County, diversion of misdemeanors seems to be comparable.
It is the work with runaways that we really want to emulate. The goal of the program is to reunify families and not to allow the runaways who are served to become part of the homeless youth population. When reunification is not possible (for example, when a child is being sexually abused at home), Harry’s Mother works with child welfare to find a placement for the youth. Runaways stay at Garfield House, a generous craftsman home in a neighborhood reminiscent of Wallingford. They go to school, do chores, and work with caseworkers around reunification or their next step. They are free to leave — staff even give departing youth bus tickets and warm clothes.
One of the more salient aspects of Multnomah County’s juvenile justice system is its emphasis on families rather than just a youth on probation. There are intensive family interventions where counselors spend hours a day in the home with medium- to high-risk kids on the brink of juvenile prison. Most impressive is the Community Healing Initiative, which has two main programs directed toward Latino and African-American youth, including those who are gang-involved or charged with gun offenses. These are culturally specific programs focusing on families and utilizing counselors who share the youth’s life experiences.
Over and over we heard about programs that literally meet people where they are, in their homes, when they are available to meet. Workers flex their hours so that they can catch parents in the evening or get a youth to court in the morning. It is clear that King County needs to adopt a similar strategy to engage youth and families with the services we offer.
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