Oregon's juvenile justice failure


The following op ed appeared in The Oregonian on April 18, 2015.

Opinion: Oregon's juvenile justice failure

By Steve Doell

No one following local news recently could have missed the shocking story of 17-year-old criminal predator Jaime Tinoco. Formally adjudicated (the juvenile equivalent of adult conviction) last summer of burglary and harassment in Washington County juvenile court, he was assessed by the juvenile department of that county as a low risk to re-offend, based on a risk assessment questionnaire that is used throughout the state. That evaluation led to a low-key probation that resulted in Tinoco's savage rape of a 39-year-old woman in Eugene after he walked away from a juvenile department field trip to a Ducks football game. Now Tinoco has been indicted for the brutal stabbing murder of 29-year-old mother-of-four Nicole Laube in another vicious attempted sexual assault in Washington County -- also while being "supervised" on juvenile probation.

It may be hard to get past the pain, anger and tears produced by these predatory crimes, and it is unlikely that the rape victim, her family and the surviving family members of the murder victim will ever do so.

But behind the grim headlines lies a bigger story. Oregon today has established itself as the national leader in "juvenile justice reform." Employing policies developed by East Coast anti-incarceration interest groups like the Annie E. Casey Foundation, our state casts itself as the future of cutting-edge juvenile justice policy. At taxpayer expense, Multnomah County juvenile authorities have even established their own juvenile justice reform institute, inviting authorities from around the nation to attend classes to promote our state's vision of juvenile justice reform.

The "reforms" advocated by the leaders of this movement, never advertised to the public at large, would leave most reasonable people at a loss for words.

The use of risk assessment tools, like the one that led to Tinoco's lax supervision and brutal crimes, is a case in point. Juvenile authorities throughout Oregon use a standardized questionnaire designed to predict an offender's future risk. The process is designed to replace the judgment of juvenile authorities such as judges and probation officers with a score generated by a risk assessment evaluation. The questionnaire, however, is dependent on the inherent truthfulness of the juvenile offender, a proposition that by itself should raise eyebrows when it involves criminal conduct.

Scientific validity tests show the predictive ability of the risk assessment tool used to evaluate Tinoco is only 70 percent, considered "poor to fair" in statistical terms. In layman's terms, juvenile authorities in Washington County decided to design Tinoco's level of supervision on a tool that is wrong in predicting future dangerousness in three cases out of 10. As late as April 1, the Washington County Juvenile Department continued to attempt to absolve itself from blame by pointing to its use of risk evaluations that, "regrettably," are not perfect.

That must be cold comfort to the families of Tinoco's victims.

The treatment of Tinoco by the Washington County Juvenile Department is only a single example of a statewide juvenile policy that has run off the rails, and one that has been carefully hidden from the public. In Multnomah County, for instance, the use of the same risk assessment tool has led local authorities to quietly dismiss almost 60 percent of all juvenile criminal cases on the day they are submitted by police. The emerging theory is that the best response to a juvenile crime is usually to take no action at all. Unlike our juvenile authorities, however, it would be hard to find a parent who believes that serious antisocial conduct such as crime should be ignored in 60 percent of cases.

And how have these brave new policies worked? In contrast to our adult system, which boasts some of the nation's lowest crime rates, Oregon's juvenile crime rates are among the highest in America. Perhaps it's time to conduct an open discussion with Oregonians about these policies.

Steve Doell is president of Crime Victims United of Oregon. His 12-year-old daughter, Lisa, was murdered in 1992 by a juvenile who was a stranger to her in Lake Oswego.

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