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Governor's Remarks

 

Remarks to the Tenth Governor’s Summit on

Minority Overrepresentation

in the

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’s 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 about it?

 

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 analogy.

 

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 our future.

 

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. population -- 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 indirectly.”

 

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.