Panelists ranging from a Juvenile Court judge to a former gang member who came out of prison "a better person" shared their views of Oregon's juvenile justice system last week at the final meeting of the season for the Willamette Women Democrats.
The discussion at the Lakewood Theater in Lake Oswego was humorous at times. Who knew, for example, that from 1949 to 1953, the presumed primary cause of juvenile delinquency in Oregon wasn't cigarettes or alcohol or pool, as some audience members guessed, but comic books?
Judge Deanne Darling, a Juvenile Court judge for Clackamas County, shared that tidbit and outlined several cases from the first half of the 20th century in which juveniles were punished for offenses that might seem trivial or normal today, such as attending a rodeo unsupervised, associating with people of bad character or riding a bike without a bell.
But there were serious moments too, such as when Sang Dao, a juvenile counseling assistant for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, talked about his own experiences in the system. Other speakers included Christina McMahan, director of the Clackamas County Juvenile Department; and Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the Oregon Youth Authority.
Darling began the meeting with a history of Oregon's Juvenile Court system. The first juvenile court in Multnomah County was started in 1905, Darling said, but it wasn't until 80 years later that the Oregon Youth Authority was created. Its goal: providing a more positive and rehabilitative approach and giving young offenders a safe environment and a way to make things right.
"There was this belief in Oregon that children were either delinquent or dependent," she said. "And I'm here to tell you that's nuts."
Darling also discussed the impact of Oregon's Measure 11 on juvenile cases. The law prescribes mandatory minimum sentences for a variety of crimes, which she said hampers the discretion of judges, particularly when dealing with juvenile cases.
It also allow district attorneys to prosecute some juvenile offenders as adults, which Darling argued is too big a decision for district attorneys to be able to make unilaterally.
"(As a judge), I can be appealed," she said. "I can be reviewed. But there is no review of a D.A. decision."
McMahan's presentation focused on the Clackamas County Juvenile Department and the areas in which it has been working to improve its approach to juvenile justice. One of the agency's biggest focus areas, she said, is making youth offenders accountable to the victims of their crimes.
The ability to provide restitution is a key part of youth rehabilitation, she said, and she often works with victims of crimes who show great concern for making sure the young offenders get the help they need.
"The things I'm talking about aren't special to Clackamas County," she said. "They're going on across the state."
Pakseresht told the audience that the Oregon Youth Authority's foremost goal for its juvenile participants is "connecting them to a circle of belonging." The agency maintains dozens of offices and facilities across Oregon and serves youth from nearly every county in the state.
"Kids need to know somebody cares about them," he said. "So do adults."
Juvenile courts are able to assign youth offenders to OYA, Pakseresht explained, and the agency then works to provide treatment, education and opportunities for restitution, based on programs that have been shown to reduce recidivism.
Dao, the final panelist, then talked about his own experiences with OYA. Originally from Oakland, Calif., he said he often encountered violence in his community as a child, which shaped his outlook as a teen.
His family moved to Portland when he was 8, but he said he faced a language barrier at the time that contributed to a feeling of isolation and pushed him to seek out more familiar comfort zones. Unfortunately, he said, that meant kids who were involved in gangs.
Dao said he became a gang member himself as a teenager, and he dropped out of high school almost immediately. He was involved in a gang-related shooting at age 17 and was arrested — not for the first time, he said, but "this time I knew it was serious." Due to the mandatory minimums set by Measure 11, he was sentenced to 12 years in prison.
"I was a kid who couldn't plan 12 days in advance, and now I had to plan 12 years," he said. "All I really wanted to do was go home."
But he says the sentencing marked a turning point in his life, because the judge in the case reached out and put him in touch with OYA. After a year in prison, he was transferred to the agency's MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility, where he began reading extensively and pursing a high school diploma. He then attended Portland State University and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in criminology and criminal justice.
"I wanted to use my story and my education to help kids navigate the system," he said.
He applied for clemency, and received it four months later after meeting with then-Gov. John Kitzhaber. He credits his success in part to OYA's approach to juvenile justice and the opportunities the program afforded him, starting with the judge at his initial sentencing who offered to connect him with the program.
"I came out a better person," he said.