There are 400 kids on probation at any given time in the Marion County Juvenile Department.
Jaleaha Wright, 18, was one of them.
She entered the juvenile system last year after getting into a fight with a girl who, she said, had spit at her. It was the first time she had ever gotten in trouble.
While the majority of youth in the department fulfill service hours and restitution payments through Alternative Programs, director of the Juvenile Department Troy Gregg estimates about 30% of youth seek other community nonprofit organizations.
The list of organizations partnering with the Juvenile Department as an outside community service resource includes Habitat for Humanity Mid Willamette Valley, City of Salem Parks and Latinos Unidos Siempre. Black Joy Oregon joined the list in 2021.
Julianne Jackson, the founder of Black Joy Oregon, believes strongly in the need for alternative programs. At Black Joy Oregon, she allows teens to travel with the organization on their Black Joy Tour and teaches them about social justice work.
She also focuses on addressing the key factors that bring teens into the juvenile system in the first place.
Wright knew Jackson as one of her mother’s longest friends. Jackson supported Wright and her family after Wright's sister, Shatamera, was killed while crossing the street near the corner of Commercial Street and Royvonne Avenue in 2019.
“She watched that,” Jackson said. “Obviously, she went through some significant trauma and had a tough time.”
Wright’s mom asked if she could fulfill her community service hours with Black Joy Oregon. Jackson had been planning on running a youth program for some time and jumped at the chance.
Jackson’s passion for offering opportunities to teens in juvenile justice stems from her own experience in the Marion County juvenile system. She remembers feeling vilified by the school district and juvenile system after being arrested for punching another student as a freshman. That student had called her a racial slur, she said.
"If it weren't for, I think, sheer luck and a bit of fortitude, I would have been in that exact same situation (of going through the school to prison pipeline)," Jackson said. "I've been very lucky not to have gotten in trouble as an adult. I feel very lucky to have gone through different stages of my life where I probably could have been in the system and not had that happen.
"It's my responsibility to make sure that folks have access to the things that make them well and that allow them to thrive and give them hope," she said.
A different approach
Alternative Programs, established in the county in the late '70s, provide opportunities for justice-involved youth to give back to the community through service, work to pay restitution to crime victims, and, in some cases, learn higher-level technical skills for future employability, according to Gregg.
Juveniles who participate in the Alternative Programs can be anywhere from 12 to 18, though the typical age is 15 or 16, Gregg said.
Teens are typically referred to certain programs by a probation officer and priority is given to those required to fulfill court-ordered community service and those who have restitution payments, he said. The department has around 400 kids on probation at any given time.
One example is the Matrix program, which offers jobs involving physical labor for teens who violated conditions of supervision or are looking for ways to pay restitution. Work includes tasks like working at the department's mill cutting firewood, paint recycling, paint pick-up, vegetation management, ditch clearing, landscaping and lawn maintenance.
'Learning is liberating': developing a trade
Teens can also spend their days measuring, chopping and sanding with Josh Navarrete at the woodshop, one of the various vocational training programs offered through the Marion County Juvenile Department.
The Focused Utilization of Employment and Labor (FUEL) has programs like the woodshop, construction, mechanics, metalwork, have more responsibilities and build more advanced trade and vocational skills that can translate into the workforce.
At the woodshop, youth use chop saws, sanders, joiners and lathes to shape their wood and make it into products then sold at the Fresh Start Market & Espresso, another program where teens can learn customer service skills. These include pens, pizza-cutter handles, coffee scoop handles and cutting boards.
A typical day begins at 8 a.m. and ends at 3 p.m., with anywhere between two to four kids working in the shop at once.
The accumulated hours worked translates to dollar amounts that go towards paying restitution, Navarrete said. Funds from sales at Fresh Start go back into the program to buy more tools for the teens.
Navarrete, a blacksmith and owner of NK Forge and Metalworks in West Salem, credits his high school shop teacher for instilling his own love of woodturning and working with his hands.
"To me, it's a relief, to me it's an escape, it's therapy," he said.
He said he's worked with retirees, veterans, people with disabilities, and underrepresented groups, but has always wanted to work with children. He seized the chance when he saw a job posting as a relief worker at the Juvenile Department last year.
Navarrete says the teens he works with are hungry for knowledge.
"Learning for them is liberating," he said. "Most of these kids, they believe that where they come from, where they live, what they've gone through — that's all they're going to know.
"What this program is doing is giving them choices, it's giving them a little taste of what else is out there," he said.
Many of the kids, he says, have never had the opportunity to work with their hands or develop a trade.
The work makes the youth feel accomplished and injects a dose of confidence.
"Unfortunately, they have not heard many people tell them 'good job' or 'you accomplished this,' so their self-esteem is kind of low — or they don't have any," Navarrete said. "So when they're able to accomplish small things like this, for them, it's huge."
Navarrete acknowledged the program's efforts are only one piece of the puzzle in rehabilitating justice-involved youth. He knows children face external challenges and pressures in their personal lives when they leave the shop.
Approaching the teens without any judgment or preconceived notions removes barriers to trust and it's easier to listen, Navarrete said. Sometimes, it's as simple as having chats during lunch or being mindful of their struggles if they come to work with negative attitudes.
"Once they realize that you're actually acknowledging that they're having a bad day maybe, then they're more willing to actually talk about what's is really going on," Navarrete said.
Failing to acknowledge the external challenges means failing the teens, added Jackson.
"No one chooses to have antisocial behavior," Jackson said. "No one would naturally make that choice. No one would naturally just say, 'Forget it, I want to be a violent person.'"
It is why she emphasizes restorative justice practices at Black Joy Oregon and why Wright was encouraged to join the group in their Black Joy Oregon, encouraged to write legislative testimony and participate in various Black Joy Oregon events.
"I internalized that I'm the problem. I'm a failure now. I can't succeed," Jackson said.
That isn't the reality. Jackson said the onus should be on adults to understand why children of color are failing.
"That's one of the things that's most important for me, removing that onus from the children and putting it back on adults where it belongs and giving them opportunities to see themselves in spaces I never would have."
Wright has since completed her mandated community service hours but she doesn't plan on stopping her work with Black Joy Oregon. She is excited to join the group again in their next Black Joy Tour stop and she's grateful to have adults in her life who stepped in and recognized she wasn't bound to be a "troublemaker."
"Our community needs more help and guidance," Wright said. "You don't have to feel like you're nothing but a bad kid."
Virginia Barreda is the breaking news, public safety and courts reporter at the Statesman Journal. She can be reached at 503-910-6982 or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @vbarreda2.
This article originally appeared on Salem Statesman Journal: Alternative programs, local nonprofits reforming Salem juvenile system