State of Oregon

Governor John Kitzhaber

Minority Overrepresentation Summit
October 17, 2001


Good afternoon. I wish I could say I was glad to be here, but Iím not. I wouldnít be here if there wasnít a summit on Reducing the Over-representation of Minorities in the Juvenile Justice System. And there wouldnít be a summit if there wasnít a problem.

So the fact that we are all here together today is a signal that we have more work to do to address the problem of minority overrepresentation in the juvenile justice system.

But that does not mean that we have not had some successes. Let me start with those today:

First, itís important to note that we have more than 125 young people in the audience today to help us discuss and think about this challenge. I think thatís incredible testimony about our future that so many of you would take the time to participate in this all day conference.

Second, there is ample statistical evidence that we are making a difference and actually reducing the number of minorities involved in the juvenile justice system. For example, while the percent of minority youth are rising Ė from 15 percent of youths in Oregon just a couple of years ago to 19 percent today Ė their overall representation in the juvenile justice system is declining.

Since we held our first summit in 1997, arrests of all juveniles are down almost 25 percent. Specifically, arrests of Hispanic youth have dropped 12 percent. Arrest of Asian youths has dropped 42 percent and Native American Youth arrests have dropped almost 15 percent. Arrests of African American youth declined steadily until this last year, when they crept up just short of a percent.

Furthermore, we have seen a continued decline of minority youth sentenced to Ballot Measure 11 sentences at the Oregon Youth Authority since 1999. The percentage of minority youth has gone from 40 percent in 1997 to 43 percent in 1999 to 35 percent in 2001.

In short, we have a lot to celebrate. Oregon is truly a national leader on solving the problem of minority over-representation in the juvenile justice system. We take action here in Oregon and we have the date to show our successes. No other state has seen this kind of progress.

But there are still some troubling statistics that we must address.

Minority youth continue to comprise a larger percentage of school dropouts: 25 percent in 2001 compared to 22 percent in 1996. We know that one of the strongest predictors of avoiding juvenile justice involvement is school success.

Measure 11 charges and sentences still represent some of our biggest challenges for certain ethnic groups: Asian youth serve Measure 11 sentences at a rate more than 2 times their representation in the population. African American youth serve Measure 11 sentences at a rate 5 times their representation in the population.

African American kids are also arrested at a rate 3 times their representation, and in overall closed custody (regardless of crime) 4 times their representation in the population.

So, our work is not done. Far from it. Thatís why I will continue to pour energy both into school quality and into helping kids be ready to learn.

We already know that one of the highest predictors for involvement in the juvenile justice system is poor performance in school. Conversely school success is one of the strongest "protective" factors that can keep a young person from engaging in delinquent behavior. These predictors are even stronger for youth of color.

Schools, then, play an integral role in preventing crime and in preventing minority youth from involvement with the juvenile justice system.

Since the 1980's there has been an emphasis on school improvement and improving the school environment so that our young people have a better chance of succeeding. We have raised standards and expectations. We have focused on improving test scores.

The quality of our schools and the future of our state are inseparably connected. People who are successful in school are more often successful in life. People who cannot communicate are powerless. People who know nothing of their past are culturally impoverished. People who are poorly trained are ill prepared to face the future. Without good schools, Oregon cannot remain economically competitive or civically vital.

But in our search for school excellence, the children have somehow been forgotten. We have ignored the fundamental fact that in order to improve our schools, a solid foundation must be laid beforehand.

We have failed to recognize that the family may be a more imperiled institution than the school, and that many of education's failures relate to problems that precede schooling -- even birth itself. We have focused on school outcomes, forgetting that if children do not have a good beginning -- if they are not well nurtured and loved during the first years of life -- it will be difficult, if not impossible to compensate fully for such deficits later on.

The difficult truth is that in Oregon today, over 40 percent of children are entering school unable to fully participate in the learning experience. These children are growing up without good health care, without supportive families, without the love they need to become successful, independent learners. Schools in turn are being asked to do what families and churches and communities have not been able to accomplish. And, if the schools fail along the line, we blame them, and the teachers, for not meeting our high expectations.

Our focus, our concern must be children -- not just the schools.

Thatís why we worked hard to pass the Oregon Childrenís Plan in the last session of the Legislature.

Iíve probably described this idea to most of you so many of you are familiar with it. Our goal is simple: give every child and family the chance to succeed.

We do this by offering voluntary screening of first-born infants. Hopefully, we will identify risk factors such as drug use and unemployment and offering a range of proven services that will help young families get off to a good start.

The plan received a $60 million budget. Tiny in comparison to the $5.2 billion school budget and still much less than our corrections budget. But I believe it is the single most important $60 million in the budget because I firmly believe it will lead to happier, healthier lives and will, in the long run, cut the amount of money we have to spend on juvenile justice, the Oregon Youth Authority and the Department of Corrections. And I will work very hard to ensure that these priorities stay in place and receive funding.

After all, a budget is not a bloodless document. It is a detailing of our priorities as a society. And rather than blindly cutting anything new out of the budget, I will work to ensure that we keep high priorities programs and initiatives like these in place.

Now for the best part of the program.

Two years ago I asked the young people attending this conference to come up with an award that recognizes other young people who have overcome challenging circumstances. I am pleased to give this award Ė the YOUTH award (Youth Overcoming Difficult Times and Hardship) Ė to four courageous young Oregonians.

First, Ernan Contreras, who is the youngest recipient this year. He is 16-years old and a student at Hood River High School. Ernan began his high school career involved in criminal activities, dabbling in gangs and skipping school. He comes from a family that has overcome a variety of economic and other struggles as well. Now, Ernan has been on the honor roll for two years. He excels in math and science, and is a positive influence on other young Latino students. Ernan was nominated by his Assistant Principle because of how he also inspires the adults in his school and in the community.

Our second recipient could not be here today due to school commitments, but I would like to tell you about him. Noah Winterhawk was before the court a lot when he was growing up, both because there were no stable adults to care for him and because of delinquency.

He did not have a consistent home life and lived with a variety of friends and relatives, often in abusive situations. When he was asked by a judge what he would like to change in his life, he replied "I would like parents at home". After many foster placements and extensive criminal involvement, Noah was placed in the custody of the Oregon Youth Authority. One of his foster moms commented that "Noah will succeed because he refuses to fail." This fall, Noah enters his second year of studies at Eastern Oregon University. During the summer, he was employed by a youth program and is a positive influence for many younger, troubled youth. Noah has also established a good relationship with his parents, due to his own initiative. Noah was nominated for this award by the judge who saw him and sentenced him since he was 10 years old.

Third, please join me in congratulating Ellie Heater. Ellie is a person who statistically should fail. She came from a single parent home where there was violence, drug abuse and poverty. By age 15, Ellie was failing in school, she was a runaway and on probation, and she was a drug addict. She decided to change her life about this same time. In addition to maintaining sobriety for over two years, Ellie has successfully completed all the terms of her probation (and is off probation), graduated with honors from Roseburg High School (receiving the "award of excellence" for both math and English), and has entered a work-study program where she is still employed. This summer, Ellie began studying to be a paramedic. She moved into her own apartment and rides her bike twenty miles each day to attend classes. And, she just saved enough money to purchase her first car. Ellie was nominated by staff at the treatment facility she attended.

Finally, letís give a hand of applause to Elton Seals. Elton used to be involved in significant gang activity and serious crime. Due to the serious nature of his crimes, Elton was sent to prison at age 17. In prison he decided to change his life. When he was released, he started to work on his education. He graduated with an associates degree with a 3.26 GPA. He enrolled at Western Oregon University where he is now in his second year. He is a starting defensive back on the football team. He has earned Division 2 player of the week, Greater Northwest Player of the week and Conference Player of the week. Most importantly, however, he will receive his bachelor's degree in social sciences this fall. Elton was nominated by his mentor.

You know, when you look at what these kids have achieved, it is simply humbling. Who among us has conquered as much? I dare say few of us. So, as we go forth for another year, working to help minority children in our community, let us never be discouraged. And if we are, remember these names: Ellie, Elton, Ernan and Noah. Thank you.

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