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OR County Decides Kids Don't Belong in Adult Jails

December 19, 2008

Portland, OR - About 600 Oregonians under age 18 have been charged as adults for crimes, and are now in custody. Exactly where they're in custody depends on the county. Many people assume that young people who have been arrested are held in juvenile detention centers, but that's not always the case.

This week, the Multnomah County Commission voted unanimously that minors must be held at the county juvenile detention center rather than in one of the adult jails. The decision is being praised by justice reform groups as an important step, both for the kids and for the county. Shannon Wight, associate director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, says it will give them a better chance to turn their lives around, with more age-appropriate treatment and resources.

"Both Multnomah County, and Oregon as a state, already are leading the country in terms of understanding that youth are different from adults and they need to be treated differently. But there are instances where youth end up in adult prisons and jails."

Wight explains that young people in adult jails are at much greater risk of physical and sexual assault, and the system isn't set up to protect them.

"Oftentimes, to provide safety, adult jails will put youth in isolation. Unfortunately, isolation aggravates existing mental health problems, and has led to an incredibly high increase in the number of youth who attempt or commit suicide while in adult jails."

There's also an important public safety aspect to the decision, according to Wight. National studies show that teens incarcerated with adults are more likely to commit new crimes.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR