Remarks to the Tenth Governor’s Summit on
Juvenile Justice System
John A. Kitzhaber, M.D.
November 18, 2008
Forty-four years ago, Martin Luther King, Jr.
stood before a crowd of 100,000 people in our nation’ capitol
and voiced a dream: a dream of a world where people would be
judged by the content of their characters and not by the color
of their skin.
Since then, we have come a long way toward
realizing that dream. Today American minorities occupy
positions of leadership in every walk of life, including
President of the United States.
Yet we have not come far enough.
While “Equal Justice Under the Law” is the
foundation of our legal system, and is carved into the front of
the U.S. Supreme Court building, our justice system is anything
but equal. Throughout the system, youth of color – especially
African American, Hispanic and Native American youth – receive
different and harsher treatment.
We have not come far enough.
African American, Hispanic and Native American
youth are all still over-represented at arrest, at detention, at
sentencing, and in secure placement. And they are more likely
to be waived to adult court. They are under-represented in
sentencing alternatives; and they drop out of school at twice
the statewide average.
The issue is no longer whether white youth
and youth of color are treated differently. They are. The
issue is for us to explain how these differences have
come about, and what we are gong to do to address them.
The fact that we are gathered now for the tenth
year in a row is encouraging. It tells me that we are serious
about meeting the challenge of minority over-representation in
our juvenile justice system. But it also tells me that, in
spite of the progress we have made in Oregon -- there is still a
long road ahead of us. We have not
come far enough.
None of us can fail to recognize either the
problem we are here to address, or the threat it poses to our
future. We can all agree that when any child becomes
involved in criminal activity, that is one child too many. We
can also agree that the disproportionate number of minority
youth who drift -- or who are driven -- into lives of crime
reflects an unfortunate and unacceptable racial imbalance that
we can no longer afford to tolerate. As long as young people of
color are over-represented among our children at risk; as long
as they disproportionately fail in school; as long as they are
disproportionately present at every stage of the juvenile
justice process -- from arrest through incarceration --
then we have not come far enough.
That is why we are here for the tenth year in a
row. And the question we face is this: what are we going to do
I believe we know what to do, but it involves
making new choices that shatter our existing paradigms. It
involves a fundamental change in our priorities; in our patterns
of investment; and in the structure of our current systems.
No child asks to be born. That is our choice,
not theirs. But once they are born, it is our responsibility --
as individuals and as a society -- to see that they have every
possible opportunity to grow up well and to develop their
characters in positive ways, so that they in their turn can help
make this a better world for their own children.
Unfortunately, not all of our choices have had
that effect. In fact, it is very clear to me that some of our
choices have diminished our children's opportunities
rather than expanded them. One of these choices is our failure
-- for whatever reason -- to intervene with many of our troubled
youth before it's too late, before they get into
trouble with the law, before they ruin their lives and
the lives of others.
Instead, we have chosen to focus on punishing
these kids after they cross the line. And,
that too is our choice.
It is a choice, because we all
know that there is a predictable chain of circumstances that
leads kids into trouble with the law. The chain begins early --
even at birth. We know there are certain social and medical
risk factors to which children are exposed in their early years
which, if not addressed, have an almost linear correlation with
school failure, school dropout, substance abuse, social
dependency and involvement in the criminal justice system. And
the longer we wait to address these unhealthy patterns,
behaviors and risk factors, the harder it is to deflect the
children back toward a health life trajectory. Let me use an
Imagine an airplane taking off
from Portland on a direct flight across the country to
Washington, D.C. If the plane is off course by just a few
degrees to the North when it leaves Portland it will end up in
Canada. If it is off course by just a few degrees to the South
it will end up over Florida. Once the pilot recognizes that the
plane is off course it is a lot easier to make the necessary
correction over Boise than over Chicago. The longer the pilot
waits to make the necessary course adjustment, the more radical
the turn will have to be. And at some point, it is simply
impossible to turn sharply enough to end up in Washington, D.C.
And that is one of the
fundamental truths which we must confront if we hope to make
different choices. It is relatively inexpensive and very
effective to make a small course adjustment in the early
childhood period to create a healthy life trajectory. It is far
more difficult, far more expensive, and often far less effective
to try to change the life trajectory of a teenager who has
dropped out of school, become addicted to methamphetamine and
drifted into a life of crime. My point is that by ignoring the
early investments necessary to ensure our children are set on
health life trajectories we harvest serious, expensive and
tragic consequences later on.
We all know what the causes are: poverty;
unstable family backgrounds and parenting; substance abuse;
criminal records among other family members; negative peer
associations; and school failure and drop-out. And we know
exactly which kids are at risk. They live in our communities.
They go to school with our children. And we also know that
these characteristic risk factors appear to be especially
prevalent among minority youth.
So the question I want to put to you is this: How
can we possibly say that children with these strikes against
them have an equal opportunity? To turn our backs on these
kids; to intervene only after they have turned in the
direction of crime; that to me is a crime in itself -- a crime
committed by us as a society, against our children and against
I'm not willing to stand aside and just watch
that happen. Neither are you. That's why we're here today. How
we address this issue will be a part of the legacy of this
generation – just as winning the Second World War was a part of
the legacy of my parents’ generation. Indeed to fully
appreciate the importance of dealing with the issue of minority
overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system is useful to
view it through the lens of the generations which preceded us
and through the lens of the generations which will follow us.
Let me ask you a question: how
many of you here are between 43 and 61 years old? Look around.
There are a lot of people with their hands up. We are the Baby
Boom generation – 78 million of us; 30 percent of the U.S
born between 1946 and 1964; most of us the children of those who
weathered the Great Depression; served in the Second World War
or who helped rebuild the world in its aftermath.
My parents were typical of that generation -- what Tom Brokaw
called the “greatest generation.” My father served in the
European theater -- entering France through Normandy and
marching through the Battle of the Bulge all the way to
Berlin. And from the time he was drafted and during the 17
months he was with Patton’s Army in Europe, my parents wrote to
one another almost every day. It is a poignant tribute to their
65 year romance that both of them kept all of the letters.
In 2002 my father edited these letters into several volumes
which he simply called The War Letters and he gave a
bound copy to me and each of my two sisters. This remarkable
document, covering the period between August 1943 and November
1944, chronicles the lives of two people – new parents – and the
incredible sacrifices that their generation made to win the war
and to rebuild the world in its aftermath.
Before he died, I used to call my father up every June 6th
– the anniversary of D-Day – and thank him for saving the world
… because that is exactly what his generation did.
But not only did they win the war, they built our system of
higher education. They created the interstate highway system
and the transmission grid. They went to the moon, cured polio,
eradicated smallpox; they put in place the great social programs
of the 20th century – Social Security, the GI Bill,
Medicaid and Medicare.
And as a result of those sacrifices and investments our
generation – the Baby Boom generation – has enjoyed more promise
and more opportunity than any other generation in the history of
our nation. But the fact is that this promise and opportunity
has not been equally extended to citizens of color in
this nation of ours – a fact that is clearly reflected in the
minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system.
And I do not want that to be a part of my legacy. I do not want
that to be part of the world that I leave to my children. And
neither do you. Until we address this injustice we have not
come far enough.
We know what to do. It's a matter of revising
our priorities. It is a matter of choice.
We must organize ourselves
and our systems around the conditions that contribute to the
chain of events that put our children on the flight path to
school failure, substance abuse and crime. We must change our
health and social support systems so that financing flows to
community-based, culturally appropriate entities that are
willing to assume responsibility for the health of our
children. And, we must provide a comprehensive approach that
addresses the relevant causes of youth crime, not just those
causes for which we already have programs. And until we do so
we have not come far enough.
Our children -- all of them -- constitute
our pledge to the future. They are our messengers --
transmitting our values, our hopes and our highest aspirations
to a time we will not live to see. But they will also transmit
our mistakes and our errors of judgment.
The bottom line is this. Children are our
responsibility. That they are here at all is because of us. We
have the ability and the means to make the right choices.
All it takes is the will and the commitment.
In closing, let me refer once more to Martin
Luther King – clearly one of my own personal heroes. While he
sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama -- himself the victim
of racial discrimination -- he wrote the following words: “Injustice
anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an
inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of
destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all
In other words, our lives and our
fates -- for better or for worse -- are bound together by our
choices. And that goes for the young people whose crimes
reverberate throughout our society. And it also goes for us,
who are in a position to craft a legacy to be proud of ourselves
and for the generations that follow us.