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Racial Gap Narrows for Incarcerated OR Youth, But Work Remains

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Wednesday, July 28, 2021   

SALEM, Ore. - Young people of color are locked up at disproportionately high rates compared with their white peers, despite recent signs the gap is closing.

According to new data, Black youths in Oregon were more than three-and-a-half times more likely to be incarcerated than white youth in 2019.

The Sentencing Project research found that the gap narrowed by nearly 20% from 2015 to 2019. But Alice Lundell, director of communications for the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said the continuing disparity isn't surprising.

"This isn't being driven by some rogue judge or one bad apple among cops," she said. "These are not problems that are primarily stemming from individual, conscious, racist decision-making. This is a systemic problem."

Nationwide, Black youths are incarcerated at a rate nearly four-and-a-half times higher than white youths.
The disparity for Latino youths incarcerated in Oregon is smaller, at about 1.2 times the rate of white youths, which is close to the national average.

Report author Josh Rovner, senior advocacy associate for the Sentencing Project, said one big factor in these disparities is that communities of color are much more heavily policed. He noted that when young people are arrested and charged, it can follow them into adulthood. Rovner pointed out that nearly all kids, regardless of race, get into trouble when they're young.

"We all need to understand - and I think deep down, we do - that kids are different, and deserve patience and tolerance to get them back on a right path," he said. "But we also can expect that they're going to grow out of these behaviors, and one of the least effective ways to do that is to incarcerate them."

Lundell described seeing some progress from the Oregon Legislature this session, in terms of reining in police and reforming the criminal justice system. But she added that racism within the system won't be solved overnight.

"And we're not going to do it unless we start looking at root causes of crime and start focusing on community well-being," she said. "How do we strengthen communities, how do we bring opportunity to communities, and how do we put members of communities in the driving seat?"


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