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When Justice Fails

Advocating for children tried as adults

Michael Leighton | 9/17/2014, 9:49 a.m.
Partnership for Safety and Justice leads a rally to raise awareness of the social and personal harm caused by policies ...
With the perspective of a father with a child incarcerated, Nabeeh Mustafa calls attention to the harm that comes from trying juveniles as adults in the criminal justice system. ‘Society does not benefit,’ he said. ‘You have all these young men in the system with Measure 11 sentences (7 and 1/2 year minimum) who will be released at some point. They face the very real prospect of being released back into the larger society with a huge deficit and no ability to compete in a job market that is already difficult for those without college degrees.’ Photo by Mark Washington

Unfair punishment for juveniles under Oregon’s mandatory minimum sentencing laws moved to center stage Saturday when supporters of reform joined together at Pioneer Courthouse Square for what they called a "community awareness and healing event."

Currently 639 youth are behind bars in Oregon. Over 300 of them were tried as adults and are serving the same sentence that an adult would serve.

Cassandra Villanueva, director of organizing and advocacy for the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said that's too many to lock up without better alternatives to get them on the right path.

"Young people who commit crimes need to be held accountable, but accountable as what they are - children, not adults," she said. "And like all other young people, they need to be given the greatest opportunities to succeed that we can give them."

Proponents of the mandatory minimum laws say they were designed to be tough on crime, but Villanueva said they aren't making communities safer, while branding kids with criminal records that do them more harm than good in adulthood.

Nabeeh Mustafa, who has the perspective of a father with a child incarcerated, is part of Portland’s black community and he attended the Portland rally.

He said more young men and increasingly young women are being “injured and devalued by this inhumane system.”

The effect of a life-long sentence can prevent youth for rebuilding their lives and gaining employment, housing and in some cases, an education.

“Society does not benefit,” Mustafa said. “You have all these young men in the system with Measure 11 sentences (7 and 1/2 year minimum) who will be released at some point. They face the very real prospect of being released back into the larger society with a huge deficit and no ability to compete in a job market that is already difficult for those without college degrees.”

Villanueva said Oregon could be doing a better job paying for the social and community services that help prevent crime and support victims of crime. She explained that these types of assistance help break the cycle of crime.

"Research suggests that for youth, being a victim of crime in the previous year was related to committing a violent offense," she said. "And so, we believe that we have to invest in helping people harmed by crime and violence, rebuild their lives."

In Oregon as in most states, she said, the mandatory minimum sentencing laws affect African-American and Latino youth disproportionately.

Black youth make up 3percent of Oregon’s youth population but account for 20 percent of Measure 11 charges. Hispanic youth make up 19 percent of Oregon’s youth population but account for 30 percent of Measure 11 charges.

Other findings show that prosecuting young people as adults makes it more likely that they will reoffend than if they were handled in the juvenile justice system; there are cost-effective and proven ways to reduce juvenile crime and recidivism; and that advances in adolescent development research suggests that young people have a different potential for change than adults.

The Portland "Justice for Youth" event was part of a national rally in 20 states aimed at keeping children out of the adult criminal-justice system. About 30 local and state organizations were co-sponsors of the event.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service contributed to this story.