November 12, 2021

The Transforming Juvenile Probation initiative, launched by the division in 2019, focuses on race, equity and inclusion

Members of Multnomah County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council executive committee were updated on Monday, Nov. 8, on the local impacts of statewide changes in juvenile justice policy, as well as work underway to transform the County’s juvenile probation. 

Juvenile Services Division (JSD) Director Deena Corso also summarized the decision-making processes for admitting youth into juvenile detention, including the automatic and statutory holds for serious crimes such as gun-related charges. 

The meeting offered valuable insight into efforts to keep the community safe amidst surging gun violence as well as simultaneous efforts and interventions designed to enhance public safety, rehabilitate young people who are still developing, reduce collateral consequences, and address persistent racial and ethnic disparities that continue to impact the entire justice system. 

Presenters shared that over the past three decades, with guidance from critical partners such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the County has been working to build a better and more equitable youth justice system, in part by reducing the number of youth placed in detention and sent to correctional facilities, while increasing services for youth and their families in the community. 

The Transforming Juvenile Probation initiative is the result of nearly 30 years of juvenile justice system reform efforts undertaken by Multnomah County, said Mary Geelan, System Change & Community Initiatives Manager at Multnomah County’s Juvenile Services Division.

Although the early 1990s was the height of criminal justice policies based on the “superpredator” myth, Multnomah County began to embark on significant system change. 

“Back then, the population in the detention facility was at an all-time high, with 96 youth every day in our detention facility and racial disparities exploding,” said Geelan. 

If we were still detaining youth at that rate, said Geelan, “we would have had 651 more admissions to detention, at a cost of $16.4 million dollars to the County and taxpayers.”

However, the County’s reform efforts have translated to an 87 percent reduction in criminal referrals to the juvenile justice system from 1992 to 2020.

“We found that working collaboratively as a community, we can significantly change outcomes for youth in our system and public safety,” said Geelan.  

Over the years, the County has changed probation practices by incorporating families into supervision models. Juvenile court counselors who supervise youth on probation have moved from a traditional probation model of working with youth in offices to an evidence-based model of working with whole families in their homes and communities.

“Because youth don’t succeed on their own — they succeed in the context of their families succeeding,” stressed Geelan.

In 2011, the County launched the Community Healing Initiative (CHI), a community-centered and whole family-focused partnership with culturally specific providers, designed to decrease youth violence by supporting youth and families. CHI helps families thrive by providing safe environments and addressing root causes of violence such as poverty, lack of access to educational success, racism and trauma. 

Community-based providers like POIC + Rosemary Anderson High School and Latino Network have proven vital to CHI’s success. And recently, through additional investments passed by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, the program has broadened among existing providers, while new providers like Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization have begun to offer CHI’s model to serve African immigrant and refugee youth on probation.

But Monday’s presentation did not downplay the reality of the work. 

Reform efforts have seen both successes and setbacks, said Geelan, notably in the under-representation of youth of color in diversion programs and their over-representation on probation.   

“At its best, probation offers court-involved youth the chance to remain in the community and participate in constructive activities, but it can also be a gateway into unnecessary confinement for youth, particularly youth of color, which exacerbates the disparities in our system,” said Geelan. 

The Juvenile Services Division is working on centering the voices of those most impacted by its work.  

“It doesn’t have to be that way,” said Geelan. “We haven’t always centered the voices of those most impacted. So in this work we’re really trying to do that.” 

The Transforming Juvenile Probation initiative, launched by the division in 2019, focuses on race, equity and inclusion. Its goals include:   

  • Expanding, enhancing and aligning diversion pathways with community-led solutions that prioritize healing and meaningful accountability. 
  • Reducing the overall number of court-ordered conditions with a focus on individualizing conditions specific to the needs.  
  • Increasing juvenile court counselors’ ability to promote positive behavior change through the use of incentives, and identifying and building on the strengths of youth and their families. 

“We’re working to rely less on compliance and more on support,” said Geelan. 

“Less on sanctions and more on incentives. Less on court conditions and more on individualized expectations. Less on threats and punishment and more on exploring the interests of youth and developing their skills.” 

Detention Use 

“In 2016, we noticed criminal referrals were decreasing,” said Division Director Deena Corso, but conversely, an increase in detention use.  

“That set us on a journey to figure out what’s going on: who’s there, why are they there and for how long?” said Corso. “It allowed us to do a deep dive and make sure that we’re using those resources for youth who pose a public safety risk or flight risk. And for youth who can be safely kept in the community, we use alternatives.” 

Multnomah County operates a regional detention facility, explained Corso, with contracts for neighboring Washington and Clackamas counties. There are 56 beds, with 29 allocated to Multnomah County and the remaining to the others. 

“What we’ve seen in the last 24 months is a very steep decline of the average number of beds used per day by month for all three counties,” said Corso. 

“We have continued to keep our eye on who’s in detention, why they are there and how long they are staying, and can youth be released into the community with a safety plan and services.”

The Juvenile Services Division uses a screening tool that scores a youth’s risk to community safety and risk of not showing up to court to help decide whether they should stay in detention or if they can be released with or without conditions. A youth’s score may result in some of the following outcomes:

  • A policy or statutory hold for a youth with charges such as firearms, serious person felony, warrant, or a court order;
  • A risk assessment score showing a youth should be held;
  • A decision to override the risk assessment tool to release or detain a youth; or
  • A conditional or unconditional release.

There has also been an increase since 2020 of youth admitted to detention on a policy hold related to a firearm, but the total numbers of youth coming to detention has declined, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Corso. 

“The court almost stopped ordering youth to serve sanctions in detention. That is the biggest reduction in terms of why youth are coming into detention.”

While far fewer youth are being held in detention, the demographics of those youth are again, disproportionately youth of color, explained Corso. 

The Juvenile Services Division is currently in the process of re-validating the risk assessment tool by assessing whether its use results in adverse impacts on certain populations. 

The last time the tool was re-validated was in 2008, Corso said. “Each time we’ve done a re-validation, we’ve been able to refine the tool to make sure it’s not being biased or having disparate impacts.” 

“I will come back to you when that re-validation is complete.” 

Oregon Senate Bill 1008

Presenters also outlined the impacts of Oregon Senate Bill 1008, which Corso described as “the most significant reform to juvenile justice in a quarter of a century.”

SB 1008 ended automatic adult prosecution of Measure 11 offenses for youth ages 15 through 17. It requires that the District Attorney’s Office file a waiver motion for the court to consider waiving youth to adult criminal court. And it requires that the DA's office provide trauma-informed and culturally specific services to victims. 

Since the bill’s implementation in January 2020, there have been 158 young people in Multnomah County who would have automatically been sent to the adult system. The District Attorney’s office has dismissed 68 of their cases for lack of legal sufficiency, said Corso, which is consistent with many juvenile referrals. 

Of those 158 young people: 

  • Two youth were waived to the adult system 
  • 27 cases are still pending resolution
  • 61 cases were adjudicated, of which 40 were adjudicated for a Measure 11  offense and 21 were adjudicated for a non-Measure 11 offense.

“As many of us testified to the legislature, the community is safer when young people are served through the youth system,” said Corso. 

“It will be incumbent upon us to longitudinally study these youth to make sure we are in fact serving youth and community better by keeping them in the juvenile system,” said Corso. 

Of the 158 cases, 19 youth have had waiver motions filed by the District Attorney’s office for proceedings to occur in the adult system. Youth in detention who have waiver hearings pending, experience longer stays in detention — and many of those youth are people of color.  

“It’s very notable that the four youths who stayed in detention the longest are all Black youth,'' she continued. “That is a concern that stands out to me.” 

While acknowledging that Measure 11 charges are very serious, Corso explained that detention centers are not intended to be used for such long stays. 

“The disparities that we saw in Measure 11, I think, is what we’re seeing play out in terms of disparities of who’s having waiver motions filed on them,” said Corso. 

“The positive thing is that most of these youth are staying in the youth system, but the disparity is real.”   

“How do we create a sense of urgency around these issues, especially as it relates to our juvenile population?” asked Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who serves as a co-chair of the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. 

“I create urgency by being a really, really squeaky wheel, and by not hiding data,” Corso said. “I think the reaction that you all had when you saw the data is exactly the reaction I want people to have. I am not a believer in sugar coating. I think people need to see how youth of color are being disparately treated. 

“I share your sense of urgency.” 

Watch the recorded meeting.