Supporting Victims, Engaging Communities

OYA director Joe O’Leary reflects on the rights and roles of victims in the juvenile justice system.

April 18-24 is National Crime Victims’ Rights Week. This year, the theme is Support Victims, Build Trust, Engage Communities.

This commemorative week provides an excellent time for us to recommit to and reflect on the rights and roles of victims throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Ensuring that victims receive accessible, appropriate, and trauma-informed services is a critical part of helping them move forward with hope for progress, justice, and healing.

This year’s theme also reminds us that individuals and communities experience safety and victimization differently. People from communities of color or the LGBTQQI community frequently experience additional traumas that some may not see. They also may need more or different supports. It’s important that we build trust with people who have been victims of crime, in culturally-specific ways, so that we can meaningfully engage them and support their rights.

The implementation of Senate Bill 1008 in 2020, which aligns with national research about juvenile brain development and ways to reduce recidivism, helps bring victims’ rights and concerns into greater focus.

As we all know, youth enter and exit the adult criminal justice system in much different ways than the juvenile system. This raises understandable concerns and questions for victims about how youth are being held accountable, and how we will keep victims and their communities safe. It’s important that we acknowledge victims’ input and integrate their viewpoints into the decisions we make about youths’ cases, with a primary goal of avoiding re-victimization not compounding trauma.

It’s important that we build trust with people who have been victims of crime, in culturally-specific ways, so that we can meaningfully engage them and support their rights.

When youth who commit serious crimes are kept in the juvenile system, the courts and the community are placing their trust in OYA to provide rehabilitation services, protect the victim and the community, and make data-informed decisions about that youth’s path. That’s why our agency reviewed and revised our parole standards in response to the changes from SB 1008, and we implemented a higher level of parole review for the most serious cases. We are continuing to sponsor and support bills in the current legislative session that further support victims and restorative justice practices.

All of us work hard to ensure that the youth in our custody understand the impact of their actions on victims and make restitution, either monetarily or by alternative means such as contributing positively to their local communities. This is a critical part of holding them accountable and building their capacity for empathy.

We also work to ensure that victims know about the services available to them, including the VINE Notification System, county victim advocates, and other resources that we’ve listed on our website.

Still, we realize there is more work to be done. We continue to use research and individual-focused treatment to work toward reducing future victimization by helping youth in our care to learn to lead productive, crime-free lives. And we are renewing our efforts toward providing inclusive, accessible, and trauma-informed communication with victims.

We encourage all of our staff — not just during this week, but all year — to remain mindful of our responsibility to reduce victimization and be responsive to the needs of victims. Pay attention to each case and each person, as each may carry the impact of the crime differently. Just as we try to do with each other and with our youth, we need to meet victims where they are, listen to learn, and show them that we hear them through our actions.

Joe O’Leary is director of the Oregon Youth Authority.

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