State of Oregon

Governor John Kitzhaber

Minority Overrepresentation
Summit Speech
October 20, 1999

Thank you for participating in this Summit.  I'm glad to see so many of you here -- individual Oregonians whose professions bring them into contact with troubled youth and whose commitment to helping these kids is beyond question.

I'd also like to extend a special welcome to  Emily Martin, who will be our next speaker.

Emily is a national expert on minority issues and juvenile crime prevention.  She has served as Deputy Director of the Midwest Regional Office of Community Relations for the US Department of Justice and Citizen Participation Advisor for the Model Cities Administration at HUD.  Currently she is Director of Training and Technical Assistance for cultural competency issues for the US Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

We are honored to have Emily with us today.

The fact that we are gathered now for the third year in a row is encouraging.  It tells me that we are serious about meeting the challenge of minority over-representation in our juvenile justice system.  But it also tells me that, in spite of the progress we have made in the last couple of years, we all know that there is still a long road ahead of us.  Let me take just a moment to review where we started and how far we have come so that we can see where we need to go from here.

First of all, none of us can fail to recognize either the problem we are here to address, or the threat it poses to our future.  We all agree that juvenile crime is far too high.  We all agree that when ANY child becomes involved in criminal activity, that is one child too many.  But we also agree that the disproportionate number of minority youth who drift --  or who are driven -- into lives of crime reflects an unfortunate and unacceptable racial imbalance.  That is why we're here for the third year in a row, and the question we face is -- what are we going to do about it?

We all know that there is a predictable chain of circumstances that leads kids into trouble with the law.  The road to trouble may begin in the home -- sometimes even at birth, with the social or economic or ethnic slot into which a child is born.  The trouble may begin at school, for a variety of reasons.  If it is not arrested there, it soon it spills over into the neighborhood and the larger community, until it draws the involvement of law enforcement, the courts and the correctional system.  Along the way, counselors and various church and social service groups may become involved, and certainly the lives of innocent citizens are affected when they fall victim to juvenile crime.

We all know the risk factors: poverty, unstable family backgrounds, domestic violence, substance abuse, negative peer associations, and school failure and drop-out.  We also know which children are at risk.  But there are two critical facts here that we cannot afford to ignore -- if we are serious about laying this issue to rest.

First, whatever the circumstances into which these children are born, they are still CHILDREN -- children we brought into being, children with the same inherent potential as any other child, children who deserve the same opportunities as any other child.

And second, the chain of circumstances that funnels these kids into the juvenile justice system is a chain that CAN be broken -- at any point along the way.  There are things we can and must do to reach out to these children.  The kids we heard from this morning make that powerfully clear.

The groups represented here today touch the lives of these troubled kids at various points along the road, or at various links in the chain.  When that happens, we all try to do the job we're called upon to do, and I firmly believe we try to do our best.

But if that alone were the answer -- if doing our best when our lives and theirs intersect were the whole solution -- then there would be no reason for us to be meeting here for the third year in a row to address a problem that is not yet resolved.  WE HAVE TO DO MORE.

When I convened this Summit for the first time two years ago, each group made a voluntary commitment to take proactive steps toward finding and achieving a solution.  The first stage of our strategy involved looking inward -- each part of the system examining its own programs and policies to detect the presence of minority bias, however inadvertent, to foster greater awareness of and sensitivity to minority issues, and to increase cultural competency, and expand minority hiring practices.

Last year we agreed that the next step was to begin looking outward -- by starting to develop programs that would actually help minority youth turn their lives around.  In this area, some progress has been made:

Later today we will be paying tribute to some of the people who have made significant headway toward achieving our goal, and I ask that you stay to help celebrate and recognize those accomplishments.

But much remains to be done.  As I said to you a year ago, as long as young people of color are over-represented among our children at risk, as long as they are disproportionately present at every stage of the juvenile justice process -- and despite our best efforts they still are -- then we still have a long way to go.  So what is the next step?
Let me mention some of the things my administration is trying to contribute towards a solution.

I believe these steps will help, but they are not enough.  Even the steps each of you are taking in your own particular part of the system won't be enough unless we find some way to consolidate our efforts.  Acting separately, we can never hope to reduce the terrible epidemic of juvenile crime, or to reverse the shameful over-representation of minority youth in our juvenile justice system.  That is a point I tried to make a year ago and it still needs to happen.

This is not a problem we can effectively deal with as a loosely affiliated group of interested parties, however sincere our efforts.  It is not a problem that can be attacked piecemeal.  Only if we fully understand each others' roles, only if we figure out how we can connect our efforts and work in concert, rather than separately, will we gain any appreciable foothold.

I do not pretend that we face an easy task or that we will resolve this issue overnight.  But neither will I pretend that this is not a matter of great urgency.  Every day, while we sit here trying to figure out what OUR next step should be, some new child takes his or her first step down the wrong road, or is somehow pushed by circumstances into doing so.
That's why we must seek ways to collaborate -- ways for the various parts of the system to work together to help these kids either from getting involved in the first place or from penetrating the system any further.

The point is that as long as we continue to view the whole spectrum of the juvenile justice system -- which truly begins with the home and ends with jail -- as a collection of separate parts, our success will surely be limited.  And I say that's not acceptable.

If a chain of events leads minority youth to cross the line of the law, then we must form a chain of our own -- a chain of prevention.  But as long as there are disconnected links in that chain, too many children -- especially too many minority children -- will surely slip through the cracks.  And I say that's not acceptable.

We can do better than that.  And we MUST.

When I try to think of how to explain this challenge in a way that will stick, I remember that Greek warriors locked their shields to form a strong line of defense against an advancing enemy.  As long as they fought separately, some of the enemy always got through.  But once the shield-line was locked, victory was almost always assured.

I don't think I exaggerate in saying that today we too face an enemy -- an enemy that threatens the very fabric of our society, an enemy that endangers not only the lives of our young people, but of innocent people as well.  An enemy that must somehow be stopped.  But no matter how hard we try, no matter how strong our resolve, we'll never accomplish that if we continue to fight separately.

Please don't misunderstand me.  I recognize and appreciate and applaud what you have done over the last two years.  And you have done a lot.  You have taken the first critical steps in this battle.  You have recognized the enemy.  You have outlined a strategy.  Now, together, we must put it into action.

There are chains that bind and chains that protect.  Just as there is a chain of circumstances that entraps minority youth and leads them into trouble, so there is a chain of defense that could prevent this from happening.

We need to "lock the shield-line."  And we already have the shields -- compassion, comprehension, commitment.  If to these we add CONNECTION -- if we work together to break the chains that bind our minority children to a future without hope, we will be much closer to ensuring that each and every one of these children is given an equal opportunity to succeed.

Even while we honor and respect the cultural identity of our growing minority populations, we must remember that they are part of us.  They enrich our lives and enlarge our perspective.  We owe it not only to them but to ourselves to give them the rights most of us take for granted: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  No less than that should be our goal.

Once again I thank you for your efforts and your commitment, and urge you to continue the work you have begun.

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