November 2, 2015

Sang Dao and Christina McMahan Photo credit: Kurt Bedell

On the afternoon of October 26th a crowd full of students, professors, researchers, professionals in the juvenile justice system, and two news stations came to listen to a panel of experts addressing juvenile justice. The panel included Multnomah County's Christina McMahan, Juvenile Services Division (JSD) Director and Sang Dao, program aide at JSD.

Every year, the School of Social Work at Portland State University convenes a lecture series in honor of Charles Shireman, a beloved teacher of research and courses on juvenile and criminal justice at Portland State. With special interest in probation, outreach to delinquent youth, and gang work, Dr. Shireman believed that the lives of juvenile delinquents could best be reclaimed through rehabilitation instead of severe punitive sentences. This series, which started in 2006, has invited nationally known speakers in juvenile justice and the child welfare field to inform, inspire, and challenge learning and progressive change.

It was with great honor that Christina and Sang accepted the invitation to be panelists. They joined Fariborz Pakseresht, Director of the Oregon Youth Authority (OYA), Mark McKechnie, Executive Director of Youth Rights & Justice, and moderator Evan Elkin, Executive Director of Reclaiming Futures. Christina, along with Fariborz and Mark, brought years of experience working in various aspects of the juvenile justice system and provided a range of perspectives about what is working at various levels and where there is still room for improvement. Sang brought lived experience, having spent eight years incarcerated in OYA and Oregon Department of Corrections facilities. Upon release in March, he began working at JSD where his experiences are informing the work of the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative. He also mentors youth currently housed in detention awaiting resolution of their Measure 11 charges. Sang's insight added depth to the policy discussion that could only be gained through the voice of someone who has experienced the system first hand.

Evan introduced the panel by telling the audience “You will hear from the most forward thinking experts in the juvenile justice system and they happen to be from your state.” Topics included the history of Oregon’s juvenile justice system, how the system has addressed the challenges of racial and ethnic disparities, and the range of high quality treatment approaches being used and developed as effective alternatives. The panelists stressed the importance of recognizing that juveniles are at a different developmental level than adults and that experiencing positive and caring relationships with adults is key to their success. Sang pointed out that it was his mother and other supports that kept him going, “I held on to the hope that she had for me.”

Education is another key component for a youth’s success. For Sang, the educational opportunities available to him at OYA gave him a sense of identity and helped him develop critical thinking skills. He earned a bachelor's degree in criminology and criminal justice while incarcerated and is now pursuing a master’s degree in public policy at Portland State University

Sang Dao and Dr. Joan Shireman Photo credit: Kurt Bedell

An additional important topic touched on was the persistence of the racial and ethnic disparities in the system and how to address this issue. Christina shared that instead of just coming up with a program, we need to focus on the data. “We don’t really drill down on the data the way we need to to fully understand where the gaps are and what the strategies are that make the most sense.”

Last year, a multidisciplinary team (MDT) from Multnomah County went through an intensive training where they learned the importance of analyzing data through a racial and ethnic lens that also considers geography, gender, and types of offenses. This holistic view of the data allowed the team to take a step further, developing a pilot project called the Community Healing Initiative Early Intervention Program. The project brings Multnomah County, the Gresham Police Department, and other community partners together to target the Rockwood area in an effort to divert first time offenders from the juvenile justice system. Success in Rockwood led to expansion of services to all of Multnomah County through connections with culturally responsive organizations Latino Network and the Portland Opportunities Industrialization Center.

Before the Early Intervention Program, the county was working to address the needs of youth of color who are already in the juvenile justice system and considered high risk. The goal of the original Community Healing Initiative is to prevent these youth from re-entering the juvenile justice system, avoid incarceration, and to provide additional services to the whole family to help them to identify and set goals for themselves. The panel agreed that more work is needed but that the community is ready to continue working together.

The last question for the panelists asked, "if you could rebuild the juvenile justice system what would it look like?" Answers ranged from rebuilding the whole system from scratch, treating each youth as an individual, ensuring youth are getting what they need, a system without silos, and a system built on compassion. Laura Nissen, Dean of the School of Social Work, closed the event by thanking the panelists for the “leadership, clarity, and courage you show.”