Oregon Walks to Get Teens out of Adult Court

In what organizers say is the first event of its kind in the Pacific northwest, Oregon juvenile justice advocates will hold a 5K run/walk this month to publicize a campaign to channel the state’s 15-, 16- and 17-year-olds toward juvenile court.

“In 2009, my 15-year-old was convicted as an adult,” said April Rains, a board member of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, a nonprofit group that aims to make Oregon’s approach to public safety more effective and just. “I knew that he needed to be held accountable for what he did,” said Rains, a one-time victim advocate. But, “what was shocking was how little support I got for my son and my family. He was a good kid, was involved with church, loved learning, loved taking care of animals. When he was charged with this crime, it was like none of that mattered.”

Her son was charged with sex abuse I and sentenced to 75 months’ incarceration, which he’s now serving. The victim of the inappropriate touching was another family member, “so I was really seeing the situation from all sides,” said Rains, “but I couldn’t get the DAs to listen to what was best for our family.”

Rains wanted her son charged as a youth, first, so he could get treatment while being held accountable. Second, she did not want to see a felony conviction follow him around the rest of his life.

Now 19, her son has completed treatment, gotten a high school diploma and welding certifications and is in his third term of college, all while serving in a juvenile facility.

But there was no way for him to go to a juvenile judge. In 1994, Oregon voters passed Measure 11, which set minimum sentences for several serious criminal charges like robbery and murder. It applies to all defendants aged 15 and older, including indictments in adult court.

A total 975 Oregonians have served or are serving time for M11 crimes committed when they were under 18, according to October, 2012 state statistics. Under certain conditions, they are allowed like Rains’ son to serve time in a youth detention center rather than adult prison.

To help bring attention to family ordeals under Measure 11, Rains is serving as parent lead on the 5K Run/Walk for Youth Justice Awareness Month on Oct. 27 in Salem. YJAM began in October, 2008 in Missouri, founded by a mother whose 16-year-old son was convicted in adult court and committed suicide rather than face 30 years in prison. Events will be held in more than half the states this October.

Every state sets its own laws on the age of criminal responsibility, and many exclude certain serious offenses from juvenile court once the defendant is above about 14 to 17 years of age.

But that automatic appearance in adult court for young offenders like Rains’ son is one of the things they will work to change during the next state legislative session, said PSJ Youth Justice Policy Associate Jose Gutierrez. First, they want that decision about youth or adult court for teens to be in a judge’s hands.

They will also lobby “to provide some second chance for youth serving mandatory sentences,” explained Gutierrez. “We should require a hearing part way through their sentences. At that hearing, a judge would determine if that youth would stay in prison or be transferred for mandatory supervision by a parole officer.”

The third goal is to remove mandatory sentences for second-degree M11 offenses and replace that with sentencing discretion for judges.

Take for example robbery II, said Shannon Wight, PSJ associate director. That’s a charge that in Oregon could result from a fight followed by one youth snatching another’s iPod, and end in a five-year mandatory sentence. “Those [charges] that are less serious, those are the ones where we need a judge involved,” said Wight, a judge that might decide the adult system is not right for every youthful defendant. “Having an adult felony conviction that says robbery II for that kind of offense is a very extreme punishment,” Wight insisted.

She’s optimistic about the prospect for change, saying “there is momentum.”

Earlier this year, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber recalled the Governor’s Commission on Public Safety, instructing it to continue reviewing both the adult and juvenile criminal justice systems. This time, the governor’s instructions read: “The Commission may recommend any structural changes, sentencing changes, or allocation of funding changes that will control corrections growth, hold offenders accountable and protect public safety …”

That’s similar to what’s happening in Georgia, right down to technical assistance from the Pew Center on the States.

The 12-member Oregon Commission will deliver a report, and perhaps draft legislation, in late fall or early winter. The Oregon State Legislature convenes in February.

Photo from the Partnership for Safety and Justice.