to the Tenth Governor’s Summit on
A. Kitzhaber, M.D.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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
we have chosen to focus on punishing these kids after they cross
the line. And,
that too is our choice.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
know what to do. It's a matter of revising our priorities. It is a
matter of choice.
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
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.
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
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