Multnomah County, Oregon: Community Justice

Aug 28, 2013

The population of Multnomah County, Oregon is slightly less than 750,000. When I met in the Portland offices of the Department of Community Justice on August 15, there were 16 juvenile offenders in detention.

Compare that to Polk County, Florida with a population of 610,000 where in early August 138 juveniles were detained at the Avon Park Youth Academy, and a fight erupted after a basketball game. About 150 law enforcement officers responded and now some of those detained youth have new charges on their records.

In the same month, early August 2013, the Des Moines (Iowa) Register described the illegal and long-standing use of cement-block isolation cells for teenagers at the Iowa Juvenile Home. One 13-year old girl had been in isolation for two months and another teenage girl in isolation for almost a year.

So what is the state-of-the-art in juvenile justice and for adults on probation? 

The themes I heard in Portland were research drives practice; assessments drive programs; and we do what works. The Multnomah County Department of Community Justice bases its approach to adult and juvenile probation on evidence-based practices. An initial risk assessment is done on each person who comes to probation so officers can focus oversight and work more intensely with high-risk offenders. For the 8,300 people supervised by the Department, a wide range of community-based services is available.  The emphasis is building the skills needed to successfully re-enter the community and stay out of the justice system. 

On the juvenile side, major initiatives include working with families, a multi-agency gang intervention program, and the best possible health and mental health care. The intention is diversion from custody. Current evidence demonstrates that youthful offenders do best by staying in the community and out of detention. 

On the adult side, risk assessments drive practices; probation is customized to what is needed. For example, a learning center with many tutors and coaches helps men and women on probation get high school diplomas (or equivalent) and find jobs. Drug abuse and mental health treatment is widely available and encouraged. 

The Department invests in its employees. Training is broad and deep. Monthly reports highlight the latest research for reducing crime and recidivism. A unique aspect is real-time review of interview sessions and feedback to probation officers. 

The Department’s efforts are supported by Justice Reinvestment legislation, specifically Oregon House Bill 3194, passed July 1, 2013. The bill: created, repealed and amended criminal justice provisions; capped the prison population at its current level; and re-affirmed Oregon’s leadership in community-based supervision practices that have reduced costs and recidivism. The bill diverts savings from reduced prison growth to local agencies, organizations and services. Other highlights include: eliminating mandatory sentences for certain drug crimes; reducing supervision when probation conditions have been met; empowering probation officers to modify special conditions of probation; and establishing a statewide commission to study and disseminate best practices.  Clearly, some of those best practices are in Multnomah County.