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Editorial: Time to review juvenile jail powers

The regional jail has operated mostly quietly for its nearly 20-year existence in The Dalles.

But some harsh spotlights have shined on it in 2017, first by protesters opposing the housing of immigration detainees there and, more recently, by a disability rights organization that issued a scathing report on how it handles youth in juvenile detention.

Disability Rights Oregon’s Dec. 5 report got wide coverage, and its eye-catching central contention – of “inhumane” treatment of youth – was hotly disputed by jail officials.

To the jail’s credit, however, administrators are taking the findings seriously, and using them as something of a roadmap toward making changes.

But two years ago, the jail received another report, from the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative, which came up with similar findings.

That report apparently sat on a shelf until its much louder twin landed with a thud of broad regional publicity. It does give pause to wonder if the DRO report had been quietly handed over, would it have been heeded?

Regardless, this report was seen as a wakeup call, as one official said, and corrective steps are being taken now. Indeed, a number of beneficial changes have already been made.

The Northern Oregon Regional Corrections Facility has an adult jail and a separate juvenile detention facility. It can have upwards of 20 or more youth incarcerated during busy times, and maybe just a handful when it’s slow, like now.

Now, youth in the juvenile facility are free to ask the time if they wish. Before the DRO report, there were no clocks, and it was literally against the rules to ask the time.

Clocks will also be placed around the facility, which will make the question unnecessary in the first place.

When the DRO staff attorney who did the report looked at the detention facility’s policies, she joked to the juvenile jail manager that they read like something out of 1995.

The report from two years ago made the same observation, finding that actual practice was appropriate, but on paper, the facility stumbles. Policies were outdated and documentation was lacking.

Our ideas of how best to manage incarcerated youth have definitely changed since the 90s. Some 20 years ago, restraints and pepper spray were acceptable tools of the trade. Those have fallen by the wayside.

The DRO report’s central complaint concerned what it called isolation or solitary confinement, and which the jail calls disciplinary status. That’s when a youth has broken a rule and is not allowed to be with other youth, meaning he or she must eat and study alone.

While the report said youth were deprived of human contact, the jail responded that they did have regular interactions with staff, teachers and counselors. The report also said youth reported spending three to six hours a day in their cells. The jail disputed this, but couldn’t prove it because state-required documentation wasn’t happening.

There’s also a wider message from the report, and that’s that the community itself needs to step up. The report’s author called for more foster homes, more community treatment facilities, and more family support. All of those would help keep kids out of jail. In fact, family support plays into some contested aspects of the report.

One kid had been in disciplinary status — meaning no contact with other kids — for weeks. He told DRO he didn’t get visits from family during that time. But a juvenile justice official said the kid didn’t even have family who tried to visit him in the first place.

“What’s crazy is people don’t come to see their kids,” the official said.

The report has not only shined a spotlight on how youth are treated, but also how the juvenile directors who place youth in the facility are treated.

The regional jail is run by four counties: Wasco, Hood River, Sherman and Gilliam. The juvenile directors of the four counties make up an oversight committee, which meets monthly.

The four sheriffs of the member counties also meet, and they inspect the adult side of the jail to ensure operational standards are met. The same thing isn’t set up — not yet, anyway — on the juvenile director side. And, interestingly, while the sheriff representative on the regional jail board gets a vote, the juvenile representative does not. An attempt a few years ago to change that failed.

So structurally, on purpose, the regional jail board does not give juvenile directors the same power as sheriffs. It seems a strange setup, and one that is clearly worth revisiting in light of the two reports.


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