February 9, 2012

Multnomah County’s reform of its juvenile justice system has accomplished so much over the past 20 years that it’s become a national model, the Board of Commissioners learned during a briefing on Feb. 9.

Bart Lubow, director of the Juvenile Justice Strategy Group of the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, told the board that the county’s Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative has adopted a smarter and more effective approach that leads to better outcomes for young people while protecting public safety and saving taxpayer dollars.

“You have helped spearhead a national juvenile justice reform movement that continues to pick up steam,” Lubow told the board. “This has been a tremendously helpful partnership for our foundation.”

About 100 delegations have visited Multnomah County over the past decade to learn more about the county’s pioneering work with the detention alternatives initiative. Those visits have helped to influence the expansion of the initiative to 39 states and more than 150 local jurisdictions, Lubow said.

He said in his presentation to the board that the county, like other jurisdictions nationwide, faced serious problems with its juvenile justice system two decades ago. Among those challenges were a federal lawsuit, chronic crowding, a shortage of meaningful alternatives to secure detention, lack of data and no real collaborative planning or oversight.

Multnomah County, however, responded to those many challenges by becoming one of the first places to implement the initiative that establishes alternatives to juvenile detention. Lubow noted that data shows detention leads to worse outcomes for young people after their release, with young detainees far more likely to drop out of school and use illegal drugs and alcohol than young people who were not kept in detention.

Data also shows, he said, that public safety has benefited from the detention alternative initiative because rates for failure to appear, re-arrest and criminal referrals all have improved since the initiative went into place.

Disparities in the race of young people who are detained have also improved, Lubow said.   

“Multnomah (County) has been a pioneer in this regard,” he said, noting that work continues in reducing those disparities.

And the reduction in beds set aside for detention has freed up nearly $10 million for other Multnomah County initiatives.

All told, the county has made great progress toward juvenile justice reform’s goals of reducing reliance on secure confinement; increasing community capacity to serve needs of children and their families; and improving public safety by holding young people accountable, making victims whole and reducing disparities.

“It makes me proud as a commissioner,” said County Commissioner Diane McKeel, “to know we are a model site.”

To watch a video of Lubow's presentation, please go here.