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Oregon Passes Legislation to Move Juveniles Out of Adult Jails

“Youth who are held in adult jail[s] are at significantly increased risk of experiencing violence, committing suicide, and they’re actually at much higher risk of recidivating as well,” stated David Rogers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice (PSJ), based in Portland, Oregon. Thus, Rogers and PSJ have lauded the June 6, 2011 enactment of Oregon’s House Bill (HB) 2707 as a progressive sentencing reform measure.

In 1994, Oregon voters passed Measure 11 (M11), which imposed mandatory prison sentences for 16 (later increased to 21) offenses. M11 also requires that 15-, 16- and 17-year-old offenders charged with an M11 crime be tried as adults.

Prior to the passage of M11, juveniles awaiting trial were held in youth detention facilities regardless of the offenses they were accused of committing. Since M11 was enacted, however, the default place of pretrial confinement for 16- and 17-year-old offenders has been adult jails. Although county sheriffs and juvenile justice officials retained discretion to hold juveniles in youth facilities, adult jails were generally the rule for M11 offenders.

“Research published in the past 15 years has shown that the juvenile system is better equipped to keep youth safe while they are in custody, and to provide treatment, services and supervision to prevent delinquency and reduce reoffending,” according to a July 2011 report titled Misguided Measures, published by PSJ and the Campaign for Youth Justice. “National studies have found that youth who are held in adult jails are at an increased risk of physical and sexual assault and are more likely to attempt or commit suicide.”

HB 2707 amended ORS 137.705 to state that “youth may be housed in an adult jail only if the director of the county juvenile department and the sheriff agree to detain the juvenile in a jail or other place where adults are detained.” As such, “counties that currently house youth in adult jails will need to re-evaluate that decision and hopefully will agree that Oregon’s youth are better served in juvenile detention centers.”

Additionally, juveniles under 16 years old who have been charged as adults may not be detained in jails or other facilities that hold adult offenders, either while awaiting trial or after they are convicted.

“Tough crime policy isn’t the same as smart policy,” observed Shannon Wight, PSJ’s associate director. “Passage of House Bill 2707 sends a strong message from legislators that youth should not be held in adult jails.”

Unfortunately, the message sent by HB 2707 isn’t quite as strong as PSJ would like to believe. The legislation does not limit the discretion of county officials to send a 16- or 17-year-old M11 offender to an adult facility for any reason, or no reason at all. Nor does the law contain any mechanism for seeking a juvenile’s transfer from an adult jail back to a juvenile detention facility. In short, if county officials decide to detain a juvenile in an adult jail there is no prohibition against that decision.

Thus, HB 2707 appears to be a piece of “feel-good legislation” that looks useful on paper but ultimately does little to actually protect juvenile offenders. Still, Rogers sees HB 2707 as a significant victory. “This really kind of puts our approach to dealing with kids who are charged as adults much more in the direction of being a best practice,” he suggested.

Despite its shortcomings HB 2707 is a rare sentencing reform success in Oregon. For nearly two decades, prosecutors and victims’ rights advocates have threatened and bullied legislators into avoiding any appearance of being “soft on crime.” Even a simple no-brainer bill like HB 2707 faced unlikely odds of passage.

There is little doubt that HB 2707 would have died in committee had it not been for the tireless efforts of PSJ, which led to nearly unanimous legislative support for the measure. PSJ has since called for county officials to comply with the intent of HB 2707, and ensure that juveniles are not placed in facilities that house adult offenders.

“Counties should implement House Bill 2707 and remove youth from adult jails. Young people awaiting trial on an adult charge should be held in juvenile detention or supervised on pretrial release,” recommended Misguided Measures. “While counties may experience short-term costs associated with this change” due to placing juveniles in youth detention facilities, such costs “could be reduced through the use of supervised pretrial release.” Moreover, “counties will reap long-term savings by reducing youth recidivism and subsequent reincarceration in the adult system.”

Sources: The Statesman Journal; Oregon HB 2707 (2011); “Misguided Measures: The Outcomes and Impacts of Measure 11 on Oregon’s Youth,” Partnership for Safety and Justice & Campaign for Youth Justice (July 2011)

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