by Sarah Mirk
WHEN SHE WAS 16, Jasmine spent a month locked 23 hours a day in an adult jail cell in Multnomah County. While awaiting trial for stealing a woman's purse after a meth binge and then violating probation, Jasmine says a guard bet her a nickel that she would be back in the adult jail again before she turned 18.
"There was no support. I didn't have anybody talking to me about the decision I'd made. Instead, it was guards telling me I was a fuck-up," says Jasmine, who is now 20 and asked that her last name not be used as she hopes to turn her life around. "It was very cold and lonely. I had no hope."
Federal law encourages states to keep juveniles out of adult jails. But Oregon gets around those guidelines with a legal loophole created by Measure 11, a tough-on-crime law Oregon voters passed in 1994. According to the nonprofit Partnership for Safety and Justice, 92 kids like Jasmine spend time in adult jails statewide in an average year.
A new bill, HB 2707, which the governor signed into law Friday, May 20, may reverse this unusual status quo in Oregon. But it still leaves the door open for counties to imprison teenagers in adult jails.
In a year where most votes split along hard partisan lines, the youth-in-jails bill passed the House and Senate with only a single vote against it (that would be Clackamas County Republican Fred Girod).
Under Measure 11, 16- and 17-year-olds who are tried as adults are held in adult jails before their trials. Strangely, even if they're convicted of adult crimes the youths are housed in juvenile facilities after their sentencing. But for that pretrial limbo, which can last over a year, the teens are held alongside adults, often in 23-hours-a-day solitary confinement for their own protection.
A nationwide study from the Campaign for Youth Justice showed that juveniles in adult jails are frequently victims of sexual assault and are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than when they're held in juvenile facilities.
"It's an uncertain and untested area of the law—even though they're under 18, they're charged with an adult offense," says Multnomah County Juvenile Services Division Assistant Director David Koch. "It's a matter of policy, for how jails can safely and effectively manage these juveniles. It's really hard to keep these youths from being preyed upon."
Because of Measure 11's peculiar treatment of youths charged as adults, it's been up to counties to decide where to house 16- and 17-year-olds charged with Measure 11 crimes. Under the new law, counties' default place for Measure 11 youths will now be juvenile facilities, but local decision-makers can decide to change it back.
Multnomah County, along with 11 other Oregon counties, had already flipped its default housing for Measure 11 teens, but neighboring Washington and Clackamas Counties together sent 26 teens to adult facilities last year.
Juvenile detention offers better mental health counseling and educational opportunities than adult facilities (the Multnomah County juvenile facility has 220 days of school a year), but costs are more than triple per inmate per day versus adult facilities. Some counties also lack enough beds for all the juveniles.
"The adult facility is training grounds, more than anything else," says Portland Representative Lew Frederick, who testified in favor of the bill. "They learn how to deal with people attacking them. They're going to be looking up to the older guys who are surviving in that facility."
During his testimony, Frederick called out the case of another Portland teen held in adult jail—Kyeron Fair, a Parkrose High School senior who wound up in Multnomah County's adult jail last year after he was arrested on felony robbery charges. At some point in custody, the 17-year-old suffered massive internal injuries and was admitted to the intensive care unit at Oregon Health Sciences University while unconscious. His family is now considering suing the Multnomah County jailers for allegedly causing his injuries. It's not officially clear why Fair was transferred from the county's juvenile facility, but in similar transfers, behavioral issues were a factor.
"It demeans us as a society when anyone is mistreated, but especially those who are still in their formative years," Frederick told his fellow legislators.
Access to mental health and substance abuse counseling is crucial for turning around the lives of Oregon teens who get in trouble. Of youths in the state juvenile justice system, 68 percent have a diagnosed mental health disorder and 80 percent have used alcohol or drugs.
Jasmine, now attending Portland Community College, made her first trip to the capital to nervously testify in favor of HB 2707. She credits the counselor from her juvenile detention facility with helping her get straight. If a judge had never transferred her to the county juvenile facility, Jasmine is certain she would have had to pay up that nickel.