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Justice for Youth: When is "Tough on Crime" Too Tough?

PHOTO: Saturday's Justice for Youth event in Portland is one of 20 around the nation calling attention to how mandatory minimum sentencing laws for some crimes affect juveniles. Photo credit: dblight/iStockphoto.com.
PHOTO: Saturday's Justice for Youth event in Portland is one of 20 around the nation calling attention to how mandatory minimum sentencing laws for some crimes affect juveniles. Photo credit: dblight/iStockphoto.com.
September 12, 2014

PORTLAND, Ore. - More than 600 youths are behind bars in Oregon, and nearly half of them were sentenced as adults. On Saturday, their advocates are getting together in Portland for what they're calling a "community awareness and healing event."

The groups want to call attention to what they say is unfair punishment for juveniles under Oregon's mandatory minimum sentencing laws. About 3 percent of juvenile offenders in the state are serving that type of sentence, and Cassandra Villanueva, director of organizing and advocacy for the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said that's too many to lock up without better alternatives to get them on the right path.

"Young people who commit crimes need to be held accountable, but accountable as what they are - children, not adults," she said. "And like all other young people, they need to be given the greatest opportunities to succeed that we can give them."

Proponents of the mandatory minimum laws say they were designed to be tough on crime, but Villanueva said they aren't making communities safer, while branding kids with criminal records that do them more harm than good in adulthood.

The Portland "Justice for Youth" event is part of a national rally in 20 states aimed at keeping children out of the adult criminal-justice system.

Villanueva said Oregon also could be doing a better job funding the social and community services that help prevent crime and support victims of crime. She explained that these types of assistance help break the cycle of crime.

"Research suggests that for youth, being a victim of crime in the previous year was related to committing a violent offense," she said. "And so, we believe that we have to invest in helping people harmed by crime and violence, rebuild their lives."

In Oregon as in most states, she said, the mandatory minimum sentencing laws affect African-American and Latino youth disproportionately.

About 30 organizations are co-sponsors of the "Justice for Youth" event, which will be held from noon to 3 p.m. Saturday at Pioneer Courthouse Square, 701 S.W. Sixth Ave., Portland.

Youth detention statistics for Oregon in 2013 are online at oregon.gov.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR