The history of juvenile justice in Oregon long predates the creation of OYA, and actually begins in the late 1800s.
Society in that era believed youth were delinquent because of poor home surroundings and temptations. In response, the 1889 Oregon Legislative Assembly appropriated $30,000 to establish the State Reform School in Salem to give these youth a structured living environment. Commitments to the State Reform School quickly overwhelmed its design capacity, and on October 1, 1892, the Board of Trustees announced that no more boys would be received until additional accommodations could be secured by provision of the Legislature.
The 1893 Legislature made appropriations sufficient for the institution to carry on its intended work. By 1897, the institution had grown to more than 600 acres of farm, orchard, vineyard, and garden, and made significant progress in changing to an industrial school. In 1911, the Oregon Reform School was renamed the Oregon State Training School.
Scandal plagued the school over the next decade, and a special commission found that wards of the state were neglected. A series of recommendations were made to improve conditions at the training school, and ongoing investigations paved the way for the school to be moved from Salem to Woodburn in the 1920s.
Delinquent boys were not society’s only concern. In 1913, the Legislature appropriated $25,000 to purchase land and erect a building for Oregon’s first state correctional facility for girls. The State Industrial School for Girls opened July 17, 1913, in the old Polytechnic School building on the grounds of the School for the Deaf, while awaiting its new building scheduled for completion in 1914.
The Oregon State Training School moved from Salem to a site near Woodburn, and began operation there November 1, 1926. Four cottages housed 45 boys each. Boys were housed according to age, mental capacity, and commitment offense.
The 1930s brought "The Great Experiment," in which it was believed that issues over which a child had no control – their environment or heredity – were the underlying causes of juvenile delinquency. Rather than incarcerating boys for 12 to 24 months, boys were paroled when school officers felt their attitude was right. Length of stay at the training school dropped to an average of 100 days, and the average daily population ran about 120 boys. Vocational experience was still the primary focus.
In 1951, the State Training School became the MacLaren School for Boys in honor of Reverend William MacLaren, who had worked many years with troubled youth and adults in Oregon. During the 1950s, MacLaren resembled a large working farm and ranch. The school produced most of its own food and even provided some for other institutions. House parents – husband and wife teams – worked the farm alongside youth.
The first work/study camp opened in 1951. Camp Necarney was located on the Nehalem sand spit on the northern coast of Tillamook County. It was designed to house 25 older boys who worked full-time for the State Parks Department. Camp Necarney closed in 1956, replaced that same year by Camp Tillamook, which was built on land that had housed three old barracks buildings at the Blimp Base in Tillamook. The work/study camp was designed to serve a younger population of delinquent youth who attended school half a day and worked half a day.
Another work/study camp was built on State Parks land on the mid-Oregon coast near Florence in 1965. Camp Florence initially was used to serve academically-challenged delinquent youth.
With the help of some federal funding, the Portland Intensive Care Unified Rehabilitation Effort (PICTURE house) opened in Portland in 1974. The project was designed to reduce the number of training school commitments from Multnomah County. Picture House also was used as a transition resource for Portland-area youth transitioning back to their community from the training schools.
In 1975, Senate Bill 703 decreed that status offenders could no longer be held or committed to the training schools. Commitments were limited to youth having committed felonies and misdemeanors. A class-action lawsuit was filed against MacLaren School in 1977, alleging cruelty to students, unfair disciplinary actions, no due process, and citing other issues. The lawsuit was settled in 1989, following the implementation of numerous changes. The 1977 Legislature approved money for diversion beds to keep youth out of the training schools. Thirty community beds were added to help transition youth back to the community in 1978.
Eastern Oregon was the site selected for Oregon´s next work/study camp. Camp Hilgard opened in 1979 near LaGrande in Union County. Like Camp Florence, it offered a half-time work/half-time school program. Corvallis House work/study camp opened in 1980 on the site of a former Oregon State University fraternity house. The 25- bed facility emphasized an “Outward Bound” wilderness program for youth with substance abuse issues.
During the 1980s, offense-specific treatment models for sex offenders, drug/alcohol abusers, and violent offenders were developed. Programs to serve minority youth also were introduced into the array of close-custody treatment services.
In 1985, the Legislature put a cap on the number of youth who could be committed to close custody, reducing that population from 728 to 513 over the next two years. Savings were invested in contracts with county juvenile departments to serve youth in the community.
In 1986, the Assessment and Observation Center (AOC) was opened at the Multnomah County Juvenile Detention Hall as an intake center for metro-area youth. By 1988, gangs had emerged as a major problem, especially in the Portland metropolitan area, and the 1989 Legislature authorized $2.5 million to address the problem.
The voter initiative Measure 5 budget cuts of 1991 forced the closure of PICTURE house that same year. AOC was moved to MacLaren as a centralized Juvenile Corrections Assessment Center to screen all youth for diversion or the most appropriate close-custody program. State budget cuts also resulted in the loss of the State Parks contracts at both Corvallis House and Camp Tillamook.
In building the 1993-95 budget, juvenile correction programs were separated from child welfare programs within the Children’s Services Division of the Oregon Department of Human Resources. Forty-one staff having primary responsibility of delinquent-youth cases were transferred to the Office of Juvenile Corrections. In order to maximize federal funding for learning-disabled youth in secure custody settings, all educational programs and MacLaren and Hillcrest training schools and the work/study camps were transferred to the Oregon Department of Education. House Bill 2630 of 1993 expanded the cap on the training school population to allow for increases or decreases according to the under-18-year-old population in Oregon.
Governor Barbara Roberts appointed a Task Force on Juvenile Crime in 1993. Chaired by Attorney General Ted Kulongoski, the focus of the Task Force was to expand the capacity of Oregon’s juvenile institutions to meet growing needs and to ensure youth offenders were held accountable throughout the juvenile justice system. Their report and recommendations were published in 1994.
In 1995, a bill was introduced in the Oregon Senate to establish an independent department, the Oregon Youth Authority, to administer youth correctional facilities and programs within a multi-tiered system of sanctions, and to provide leadership within a coordinated statewide juvenile justice system.
Senate Bill 1 was signed into law on June 30, 1995. The Oregon Youth Authority became a division of the Oregon Department of Human Resources on July 1, 1995. On January 1, 1996, the Oregon Youth Authority became an independent department of the State of Oregon.